Treated just as a wine bar, this place is great — but it would feel much buzzier and younger were it in Soho or Fitzrovia, says David Sexton.
Location is a funny thing. Bilbao Berria is down the St James’s end of Lower Regent Street, on the corner of Charles II Street, a bit of a betwixt and between area, no longer Piccadilly, not quite clubland or the Mall either. It’s an odd place to find a large and fairly priced tapas restaurant that surely would feel much buzzier and younger were it in Soho or Fitzrovia.
Bilbao Berria is a successful chain of Basque-inspired “pinxto” restaurants — serving bar food bites on a stick, as well as more substantial small plates — established in Spain since 1999. There are two restaurants in Barcelona, two in Bilbao, one in Ibiza, and they’re evidently popular there, for on Monday night most of the customers here were Spanish, knowledgeable and appreciative.
To open in London, though, the owners of Bilbao Berria have opted to go into partnership with the winner of UK MasterChef — The Professionals 2011, Ash Mair. Tasmanian-born, now living in Barnes, Mair, handsome and still in his mid-thirties, is self-taught and in 2012 published a well-received book, My Basque Cuisine: A Love Affair with Spanish Cooking, adapting Spanish recipes to make them lighter and more modern.
He used the same terms, lightening and modernising, when announcing his plans for Bilbao Berria, saying he didn’t think some of the more traditional products served in Spain would be popular here — perhaps he underestimates London’s appetite for unadjusted authenticity?
Carved out of a concrete shell, Bilbao Berria has a large bar around an open kitchen upstairs and a formal restaurant, serving more substantial dishes as well as the tapas, in a windowless basement downstairs, again around an open kitchen. Basements! The place to be is upstairs, for sure, though tables can’t be booked here.
Bilbao Berria boasts an intriguing design, half urban, half rustic, a bit Spanish leathery with stitched stool covers and menu bindings, and plenty of wood and brass — plus lots of copper piping formed into giant birdcages around the banquettes and twisted into random tangles all across the ceiling, upstairs and down, almost like a spider’s web, as though you had stumbled onto a set in which Harry Potter is about to be monstered by mutant arachnids.
But if you don’t look up too much, it’s quiet, spacious and relaxing: on our visit at least, there was no music upstairs, a joy and a privilege in itself. Treated just as a wine bar, that vanishing facility, this place is great. There is an immense list of rewarding Spanish wines at modest prices, beginning at £18 for a bottle of a lovely Casa de la Ermita from Jumilla, made from deep-flavoured Monastrell, lifted by some violet-perfumed Petit Verdot — so enjoyable it seemed idle to explore further. Not yet, anyway.
Pair this with a generous wooden platter of cuts of well-sourced, acorn-fed jamon, chorizo, salchichon and lomo, for £16, never mind the pinxtos, and you have a bargain: a new favourite meeting place for a drink and talk that you can actually hear. Sometimes you do want to hear…
Downstairs, weirdly melancholy accordion music was playing very quietly, as if in a slow scene from a tragic film — and the wacky decor carried on, the end wall disconcertingly clad in wooden waves.
Pan con tomate (£2.80) was good bread spread with a little jammy tomato paste, sprinkled with salt but without a hint of garlic, a pleasant but anaemic rendering of this staple. Thin green and fat white asparagus, thoroughly grilled on the Josper (£7), came with a bland, almost peanut-butter flavoured romesco sauce, and a few tasty bits of hazelnut. Pepper salad (£5.80) was a flop: slimy, not especially fresh, pieces of very soft pepper and onion, scattered with a few lentils adding nothing, no match for zingy Italian pepperoni with anchovies and capers.
However, a tortilla bacalao (£6.50) was delicious, the egg cooked just enough, the salty pieces of cod not overwhelming, like a canny peasant’s version of Omelette Arnold Bennett. Crisply fried tiny squid pieces in batter (£6.50) were good too, smeared with a mild-tasting Guindilla alioli delivering a bit of heat afterwards almost surreptitiously.
Panceta confitado (£8.50) turned out to be a big, juicily textured rather than wholly softened chunk of pork belly, with delicate crackling around, served with a meaty reduction containing dice of quince paste, on top of some creamy mash: good stuff.
From the puddings, crema de chocolat (£5) was a dollop of chocolate ganache topped with an almond-flavoured mousse and lots of cream, given texture by some chewy pieces of almond nougat; sorbete (£5) were a surprising combo, one strawberry, one leche merengada (sweet cinnamon-flavoured milk with egg white), the third strongly aromatised with bitter oranges. With these, a glass of late harvest wine from Bodegas Medrano (£5.50) was delightful, not too sweet and with refreshing acidity.
The overall impression of Bilbao Berria is so authentically Spanish (more than Basque, actually), helped along by the wholly Spanish staff, all friendly and enthusiastic, that it’s surely not necessary for Ash Mair to have dialled down the food’s rusticity, as he seems to have done.
As it is, Bilbao Berria is unlikely to supplant Barrafina or Jose as first choice for tapas, or Ibérica or Cambio for fancier modern Spanish food. Then again, for excitingly different tapas-sized eating, the place to go right now is clearly the modern Israeli outpost, Palomar, perched on the edge of Chinatown — while Florence Knight’s exquisite palate makes the small plates at Polpetto, down at the seamy end of Berwick Street, my own idea of a treat.
Bilbao Berria is soothing, inexpensive for the location, useful — but no thrill.
2 Lower Regent Street, SW1 (020 7930 8408,). Open 8am-11pm, Mon-Sat; 9am-10pm, Sun. Lunch served noon-3.30pm, Mon-Sun. Dinner served 6pm-10.30pm, Mon-Sat; 6pm-10pm, Sun. About £80-£90 for two.
Source: London Evening Standard