JOSÉ: UNA ESQUINA ESPAÑOLA
When people realise you’re a bit more interested in food and restaurants than would be considered normal in polite company the first thing they do is ask you what your favourite restaurant is. To be honest I haven’t really got a favourite restaurant. Honest.
What I do like though, what really floats my boat and pulls my chain is propping up a Spanish bar. It’s probably in Madrid, on a cold day with that incandescent sunlight that you get in one of Europe’s highest capital cities. The barman would be of the grumpy tendency but the caña of Mahou he had just poured would be cold and have a thick, creamy head.
I would wait for my free tapa - a piece of tortilla or maybe a handful of cortezas de cerdo - before ordering un ración de jamón ibérico de bellota. He would cut the ham quickly and expertly, laying the slices in an outwardly radiating spiral, finally dropping some picos into the centre. I would take a sip of the cold, slightly bitter beer then pick up a slice of the jamón, oily from the melting fat, between thumb and forefinger. I would hold it up and briefly examine it against the light before shoving it down my gob.
At this point my interrogator would already be walking away, staring at the floor and shaking their head.
José in Bermondsey street is billed as a Sherry Bar but actually that description undersells it. For starters the wine list, whilst it has a good range of sherries has a lot of other good stuff on it (the list was put together by a couple of Masters of Wine). Also I can't think of many sherry bars that have open kitchens with several top chefs beavering away in them.
Decor is clean and functional and as in most places in Spain you have to find yourself a space at the bar or an upturned barrel to eat at - the idea of sitting at tables to eat any other than a proper is unknown in Spain (although that is changing).
Of course, all this would count for nada if the food wasn’t any good. Happily it is. José is an exemplar of the cliché of the best ingredients cooked simply. This is the stuff that all those Spanish Michelin chefs really want to eat on their day off. There will be a new restaurant opening later in the year where I suspect we may see more evolved dishes but for now José more than fits the bill.
A blackboard shows the daily market specials which is supplemented by a longer list on the menu. They're actually more akin to the Spanish media ración in size than tapas but whatever you want to call them the quality of the ingredients used is the key here.
Croquetas de jamón are sometimes a bit oily and over-fried which usually makes me a bit queasy but these were perfect: light, studded with jewel-like bits of ham, I could have eaten several more plates of these. The most fantastic Prawns cooked with a little chilli and garlic and were so good I did order another plate.
Jamón Ibérico is from Manuel Maldonado who is based not far from Jose’s hometown of Cáceres. With jamón it’s all about the cutting – you should be able to the read the maker’s name on the blade through the meat - and while it may sound xenophobic when you have the good stuff you don’t want a guiri wielding the knife. As well as being of exemplary quality this is the best cut jamón you’re going to get in London.
Razor Clams (from Scotland) come simply cooked on the plancha with a bit of chorizo and mint. Almejas are huge and meaty and you'll definitely want some bread to mop up the sherry broth.
Wonderfully fresh Sardines possibly could have done with a bit more char - they can take it - but were wonderfully fresh. Ditto some Mackerel in an escabeche which can be a bit iffy if the fish isn't up to snuff.
Pluma Ibérica (so named because of its resemblance to a feather) is one of those cuts of Pork like secreto and presa that the Spanish go nuts about but which are seldom seen over here. Well-marbled and with a lovely layer of fat it's cooked quickly so still rare inside and served with piquillo peppers. Combine some of the sweet pepper with the rich, rare pork to see what the fuss is about.
Puds are not really a Spanish forte and in lieu of helado mixta a glass of Victoria Ordoñez Malaga No. 2 and some Strawberries and Cherries more than passed muster.
Service is friendly and clued-up and really adds to the great atmosphere of the place – blimey, even a hard-hearted, old curmudgeon like me had a smile on my face (although that may have been the wine).
Three hours of a Saturday lunchtime had never passed more quickly and in a drunken, post-meal tweet I posited the fact that this was currently the best Spanish cooking in London. In the sober light of day I see no reason to retract that statement.