Once the preserve of Soho afterwork bars, the past few years have seen tapas move on and move over to east London. We visited some of the most exciting newcomers to see how tapas have transformed from incidental bar snacks into a serious culinary event.
Perhaps the most recent launch is Black Pig with White Pearls, named after the painting that takes pride of place at this new tapas restaurant in Dalston. Co-owners David Mulero (head chef) and Melvin Valentine (front of house), bought the portrait of a black sow wearing a pearl choker from a street artist in India, and ended up carrying it across the sub-continent before hauling it back home to London. At their first pop-up dinner a few years later, they served the famous black pork raised on acorns from Extremadura – the region in Spain where Mulero grew up – and thus their mascot’s residency began.
The name also goes far to describing the menu at this utterly beguiling, candelabra-lit space: a warm and welcoming selection of homestyle sharing plates – inspired by Mulero’s training at his family’s restaurant near Seville – all prepared with a touch of glamour and flair. The Pulpo a la gallega (grilled octopus) is sliced thin to give it a delicate texture, and then delicately drizzled in a clean and grassy Spanish olive oil, while the Morcilla de burgos and piquillo pepper pintxo, a rich and crumbly Spanish black pudding, comes with a deliciously creamy garlic and parsley dressing.
Often the pride of any tapas establishment, the Jamon here is a divine 24-month-old, organic Iberico ham; hearty and speckled with traces of the acorns that comprise the pigs’ diet, and which give it such a sweet and nutty flavour. Another house speciality is the Orroz negro (squid ink rice with calamari and aioli), which is so creamy and addictive, it alone is worth a visit. Much to our delight, Mulero and Valentine are adamant about decent portions, and shake their heads in dismay at the thought of tapas restaurants using the sharing plate concept as an excuse for meanness. Once through the door, they make you feel pampered and well fed.
"Much to our delight, Mulero and Valentine are adamant about decent portions, and shake their heads in dismay at the thought of tapas restaurants using the sharing plate concept as an excuse for meanness"
A comprehensive list of mid-range Spanish wines have been well-chosen by the pair, as has the delightfully dry, full-bodied Goya sherry, ideally drunk with green olives at the start of your meal. The dramatic sounds of chanteuses – Spanish and otherwise – fill the air of the mid-sized dining room, and while weekends are beyond busy – they're planning a mid-century inspired refurb for a cocktail bar in the basement – this is also the perfect place for a relaxing and revitalising mid-week escape.
Trangallán is another relative newcomer to the east London tapas scene, and the perfect example of a neighbourhood haunt. Launched a year ago by four friends with a passion for Spanish cuisine and eclectic design, the dining room is a just-so example of cosy rustic décor. Charmingly chaotic, this restaurant near Newington Green has a palpable atmosphere of lively cheer, embodied by kitschy artworks and amusing bric-a-brac. Using fresh market ingredients and special imports from Spain, the kitchen specialises in adding unique touches to classic Spanish dishes, such as the Tranga appetizer – escabeche mussels and sherry (made blood red with paprika), and carne o calderio, a slow roasted Galician meat and potato classic. There are also several lighter options, along the lines of artichokes and crab, or cured tuna fillet with sweet pepper. Supperclubs are held weekly in the basement, with a set menu accompanied by flamenco and live art performances. There is also a good list of natural wines on offer, and cavas of varying vintages that are an ideal start to the evening.
Closer to the city, Tramontana launched a few months ago on Curtain Road in Shoreditch. A member of the hugely popular Brindisa family of tapas restaurants, the focus here is on ingredients from the east coast of Spain – though not religiously so. Alongside a wide selection of Brindisa’s own imported produce, what’s worth talking about here is the rice dishes, made with single estate bomba and carnaroli rice. A standout dish, the Arroz Caldosa de Bogavante, is like a thick risotto soup, slow-cooked with an entire lobster. Prepared for two, it is creamy, savoury, and incredibly good value. Further north, Morito (the little sister and next door neighbour to famous restaurant Moro), in Exmouth Market, offers a lighter take on tapas, with Moorish and Middle Eastern influences. Vegetarian staples such as beetroot, feta, and nuts are transformed into fresh and healthy culinary delights, such as the fried chickpeas which are incomprehensibly delicious, all served with soft and crisp homemade flatbread.
Text by Ananda Pellerin