Battle of the Bars – Bocca di Lupo v. Barrafina

London Eats, Restaurants
I love a counter dining experience.  Odd, you might say, but I love the hustle of the kitchen, the open flames, the barked orders, the flash of knives.  From my perch at the bar I can see who’s competent and who’s not, admire the grill station in full swing (a station that still gives me nightmares), and occasionally question the hygiene of the whole operation.  This all makes me nostalgic for my days in the kitchen, but then I see a young chef wipe the sweat from their brow, wonder how many hours they’ve been on their feet at this pace, and what their bank balance is like and I quickly snap back to reality.

This is nearby SOHO square, known as
“SO-HO” because that was the call used when
King Henry the VIII used to hunt foxes and
hares in this part of the city.

Two of the best spots for this kind of I-wanna-be-a-chef dining experience are Bocca di Lupo and Barrafina in London’s SOHO.  Neither are new finds or even have the best food in town, but I love their energy and that they offer up something other than the stodgy old-fashioned meal that is more common here. One of my biggest complaints when I first moved here was that it was hard to find a spot to nip in and get a board of sliced, cured meats or cheeses or a couple of fried morsels to accompany a late afternoon glass of wine.  There still aren’t many of these spots out in the outlying neighborhoods, even the really snazzy ones, but if you’re willing to come to London’s city center, you might try one of these.

Bocca di Lupo, which means “into the mouth of the wolf,” is still packed almost four years after opening.  Originally I came here with my dear groom after a day of doing live shots for MSNBC in front of Buckingham Palace. The sun was shining and London was at her very best so I was content to sit in the grass and watch the correspondents and my husband do their job while I read my book and watched the tourists parade by.  The American public fully informed of Fergie’s latest transgression, we walked past the Ritz on Piccadilly Circus, gaped at the lavish packaging of the British foodstuffs in Fortnum & Mason and decided on an early dinner and drinks.  I had been hearing a lot about Bocca di Lupo and thought we might be able to land a prime spot in their bar overlooking the kitchen, and off we went.

What I liked the most that first visit was that it was unlike other restaurants I had encountered in London in that I could walk in and get a few different morsels with tastes from around Italy, a delicious cocktail (watermelon in this case), all in a vibrant atmosphere.  That was two years ago, my only visit, and the thing I remember the most is the cocktail.  The food wasn’t outstanding and the prices seemed scandalous for what we got.

This week I went with my chef friend who was in town en route from the Bahamas to Hong Kong – I know, her life is such a drag! Anyway, I thought I would give this place another try and see if it stuck this time more than last.

Seated right in front of the action the two of us didn’t even look at the menus for such a long time that our waiter got discouraged.  Instead, we watched the frenzy of the kitchen as it tried to keep pace with the diners filling every seat in the house.  We were like the peanut gallery, critiquing and commenting on every move, every plate.  I love eating out with my chef friend!  Anyway, the waiter finally got our attention and we ordered several things to share: the radish, celeriac, pomegranate, Pecorino salad with truffle dressing, the asparagus risotto with gorgonzola and hazelnuts, the sea bream grilled in salt, and a couple of fried nibbles to start.

The fried olive and artichoke

Sadly, the fried nibbles, giant green olives stuffed with minced pork and veal and a fried artichoke, came first.  When I cut into the artichoke, oil came oozing out.  Now, I’m not particularly health or weight-conscious, but imagine if I were (well, I probably wouldn’t order fried bits as a starter, but….)!  This was a case of the oil in the fryer not being hot enough so the chef had to let the poor vegetable sit in the oil, soaking it up into every nook and cranny, before it was cooked.  Such a shame.  The stuffed olives didn’t fare much better.  They were enormous bright green olives (the same as were served when we sat down), bursting with meat and coated with breadcrumbs.  All of the delicious olive flavor was gone replaced by a sort of ‘meh’ meat stuffing.

The Radish and Celeriac Salad

Salad, delicious and exactly what it said it would be (with the addition of some raw kohlrabi slices I believe).  I will be making this for myself and clients.  The risotto was also yummy.  It was my friend’s choice as I tend to shy away from risottos in restaurants fearing a stodgy result.  Nothing stodgy here!  The gorgonzola flavor was very light, a hint of truffle oil laced the entire dish, the asparagus was perfectly cooked and the hazelnuts added a delightful crunch.  Finally the fish arrived, beautifully filleted, with a hard black salt crust around it.  It was beautifully cooked and the occasional nibble on the charred skin was a treat.

Being the gluttons that we are, dessert was definitely on the agenda.  I ordered the Baby bombe calde or mini-donuts with warm chocolate sauce and rummy jam and Caro ordered the amazing milk-free espresso gelato.  Neither lived up to their billing, I’m afraid.  The mini-donuts suffered the same fate as the oil-laden artichoke and the sauces were boring and the “amazing” milk-free gelato desperately needed that milk.

All in all, I left pretty happy in spite of being jostled constantly by the woman on my right and feeling like my makeup had slid off my face from all of the steam and heat.  The food was pretty good, sort of, the kitchen show was great, the room was rocking, and the wine was very, very good.

The lunch rush at Barrafina

Barrafina is the same, but different.  Let me explain.  It has only 23 seats and they’re all at the bar.  It’s first come first served, which is great in that you can be spontaneous, but also bad because you’ll likely be waiting a while. That said, you can stand inside while you wait and they’ll serve you wine and olives to keep you happy.  It’s a little less formal than Bocca di Lupo (and it’s Spanish not Italian), but for me both service the same kind of craving in me.

Perhaps the fact that I’ve been to Barrafina several times should be the tip off to you that I prefer this spot, but that’s not really fair as Bocca offers a grander overall experience.  However, I do love the casual ambiance and the relatively simple menu.  For lunch this week I ordered baby artichokes, crisp fried with al-i-oli (just so I could do a direct comparison), the mojama with yellow chickory and pomegranate and the grilled quail with al-i-oli and to wash it all down a glass of Navaherreros 2008 Bernabeleva (recommended by the waiter and just so-so).  These were all items I hadn’t tried before and as I watched plate after plate arrive to the couples around me, my mouth watered.

Mojama with yellow chickory and pomegranate

I don’t know what’s going on with the artichokes in this city, but these baby crisp fried ones were as mediocre as the others.  More oil and the al-i-oli with it’s little dash of smoked paprika on top, left much to be desired.  It tasted of nothing.  In both cases the very essence of the vegetable was lost.  Next came the mojama, a special of the day, and I was unmoved by this as well. Mojama is dried, cured tuna, served much like a slice of prosciutto would be – it was draped on top of chickory spears (endive to you and me) then dotted with pomegranate seeds and covered in a very tart mustardy vinaigrette.  The poor tuna was completely drowned in a cacophony of flavors.   It needed much more subtle partners on the plate.  Finally my lovely quail arrived, and it was delicious.  The breasts just two bites each and little leg bones to nibble on, crunchy fried skin – yum!  It was also served with the same al-i-oli as the artichokes, but it didn’t add anything to the dish, just more oil if you ask me.

Perhaps my mistake this week was coming to Barrafina alone.  Before I’ve always had a partner in crime to make my way through the menu with and share gossip with and linger over dessert with.  I was seated too far away from the real action of the kitchen to feel a part of the action and the crowd felt very businessy and sort of cold.  Not its finest moment, but on previous visits I have loved the platters of cold Spanish meats, the creamy ham croquetas, the sardines and the Morcilla Iberica with quails eggs  or black pudding to you and me (pictured here – isn’t it gorgeous??).

Look at the lovely roasted peppers as a base. Yum!

Still, in spite of uneven performance for both of these London hot-spots, I would recommend an evening at either one.  They’re just plain fun, the food is better than many other places, and if you’re wanting to just have a little nosh to accompany your thank god the day is over glass of wine and then be on your way, these are the restaurants for you.  Warning to those who care about these things: you will come out reeking of cooked meat and oil and fish and steamed vegetables and all things delicious, just not quite as delicious when it’s soaked into your hair and clothes.

Bocca di Lupo

One thought on “Battle of the Bars – Bocca di Lupo v. Barrafina

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