An ‘authentic’ Jerez tavern in London’s West End gives Jay a taste of Spain – but not quite enough sherry…
Drakes Tabanco, 3 Windmill Street, London W1 (020 7637 9388). Meal for two: £70-120 (depending on sherries)
Gosh, but it’s fun being an old Spanish farm labourer with calloused hands as knackered and lived in as WH Auden’s face. A dust-dry glass of chilled fino is just what I need after a day out on the scorched hillsides tending to my goats. That, some briny olives, a little cured pig and some smoked scallop with avocado purée. Because that’s exactly what us Spanish farm labourers eat all the time. We just can’t get enough of that smoked scallop and avocado purée combo.
Look, can’t a boy dream of a simpler life; one free of deadlines and spittle-flecked Twitter rows and Buzzfeed‘s latest list of 29 parts of Miley Cyrus no one should ever have been forced to look at in the first place? It’s exactly the point of Drakes Tabanco, apparently modelled on a tavern of the kind found in Jerez where sherries are served straight from the barrel. I say all this with assumed authority. What do I know about a tavern in Jerez? I’m a north London Jewish boy who now lives in Brixton. Still, I’m prepared to take their word for it.Nungwi Village
The two rooms are brightly lit. The walls are white, there is a big old wood bar and, behind it, the sort of barrels that plucky women used to roll over Niagara Falls back in the good old days when people had to make their own entertainment. It feels proper “peasanty”.
At the far end is a tiny dark-wood charcuterie bar with a few legs of black cloth-wrapped ham. The basement bogs look like they belong to some old farmhouse where herdsmen sleep with their animals for reasons of space rather than lust. There are artfully distressed black-painted wooden shutters covering the windows. Though I’m only guessing about the windows because the shutters are nailed in place so hard it’s impossible to know whether there’s anything behind them. Probably not is my guess.
You get the point. Drakes Tabanco, tucked away on one of the more shadowy lanes off London’s Charlotte Street, is a studied rustic fantasy of the sort people who live in cities just adore. We may live in cities for all the benefits they bring – noise, clamour, variety – but at night we retreat to places like Drakes Tabanco and pretend that really we live in a village. The joke being that nobody who actually lived in a village in Jerez would ever want to come here; they’d laugh at all the fuss and all the swooning over its authenticity. They’d probably kill to have a Malaysian noodle bar on their door step.
Mostly, it’s a sophisticated exercise in theme-parkery from the team behind the nearby tapas bars Copita and Barrica, which are equally wood-lined exercises in Iberian fetishism. The weird thing is that Drakes, which is bigging up its sherry offering, has a much narrower choice of sherry than its siblings. OK. I get the barrel thing. I like seeing them draw my order out of the depths with one of those bendy metal contraptions. It all feels very real in a space which really isn’t. But there are only five, plus a couple of bottled finos.
We liked the chilled Rare Old India, with its mitigated dryness and that slight hint of furniture polish. We enjoyed the deep, nutty amontillado and the massive raisin and molasses hit of the Pedro Ximénez, which tastes like liquefied Christmas cake. We appreciated the fact that you could get them in both 75ml and 100ml measures, meaning a small glass of basic fino costs just £2.90 (though it tops out at £10.50 for the good stuff). But quickly I felt like we’d rampaged through the list and it’s not as if I’m king drunk of the drunken people. A short selection is fine if you really are running a bar on a hilltop far outside Jerez and there’s nothing else for 10 miles in any direction. But in the middle of London, where we live for head-spinning choice, it doesn’t make much sense. Perhaps the list will lengthen with time.
The food menu – a long list of tapas and a few more substantial mains – seems rather less committed to the whole nerdy authenticity thing. The cheeseboard, at a rather enthusiastic £12, holds both Spanish and British cheeses, including a very good soft English blue with the authentic tang of managed decay. It completely overshadowed the obligatory slab of dusty manchego, which is to top-flight cheese what the Trabant is to supercars. (Hands up if you would actively choose manchego over, say, a comté or an aged gouda? No, thought not). From that bit of Spain north of the Pyrenees in the Dordogne came a meaty tangle of goose rillettes, with gherkins and caper berries and served just warm enough so that the fat was beginning to melt.
There was a plate of sweet unshelled, unadorned Andalucian prawns for £6, and another of jamón de bellota, enthusiastically rather than skilfully sliced, for a pretty standard £15. Mojama – thinly sliced loin of smoked tuna – came dressed with the crunch of marcona almonds. Their gutsy romesco sauce, that eye-widening concoction of blitzed peppers, almonds, paprika, bread and garlic, left us wishing it had come with something a little more thrilling than tenderstem broccoli.
The sliced smoked scallops with a nappy smear of avocado purée merely taught me that scallops tense up when smoked and stop tasting of scallop. Much more the thing was the main course of roasted lamb breast with a stew of puy lentils and a few dabs of shouty salsa verde.Nungwi Village
For dessert there was the sort of chocolate tart that would force you to lie in a darkened room for days wallowing in self-loathing if you actually finished it – we didn’t – and another cultural non-sequitur of a well-made bakewell tart with clotted cream. Unless, of course, the people of Jerez are suckers for old-English puddings and pies. Anybody know the Spanish for Spotted Dick?
Drakes Tabanco is a bit of a head-scratcher. The Spanish staff are giggly and charming. It’s all done with conviction, and it doesn’t take much to buy into the conceit. The problem is that London’s Spanish restaurant sector has exploded in the past few years, both in terms of size and quality. There’s serious competition. If I want to pretend I live in a tiny village instead of a sprawling metropolis, I have a bunch of places in which to do so; and many of them have more than seven sherries with which to entice me.
Jay’s news bites
■ For more serious sherry action try El Gato Negro Tapas, a much-loved restaurant housed in a West Yorkshire stone house in Ripponden, near Sowerby Bridge. The food has all the familiar Spanish staples, but is never in thrall to them. Try the hake with samphire, clams and chorizo, or better still the scotch egg made with morcilla which should stand up to a glass of oil-thick Noe – a rare Pedro Ximenez with which you could weatherproof fences. El Gato Negro Tapas (01422 823 070; elgatonegrotapas.com)
■ With Christmas approaching, the healthy fast food chain Leon is trying to think out of the (gift) box. “How bad an idea would it be to do a reindeer soup for Christmas at Leon?” founder Henry Dimbleby recently asked his followers on Twitter. Donner and Blitzen, you have been warned.
■ Oh boy, do the Chinese lurve their pork. Recent figures show that exports of all things pig from Britain to China leapt nearly 600% in the first six months of this year. This comes on the back of recent news that a Chinese company has just bought Smithfield Foods, America’s biggest pork producer, for $4.7bn.