TONIGHT, José Pizarro is a rock star in his own restaurant. He’s shaking everyone’s hand, or rather, everyone’s shaking his hand. Hardeep Singh Kohli, the Scottish Sikh presenter, and his chums are settling in round a pillar to order and are giving him the pats on the back. It could be because today the Bermondsey Street restaurant, his first solo venture since he left as executive chef from the Brindisa tapas restaurants, won a Bib Gourmand from those bods at Michelin, an award which indicates “good food at moderate prices”, and joins a rank of restaurants that are just too trendy for actual stars – the likes of Polpo, Morito and Salt Yard. Less than a week later José goes on to become the 54th best restaurant in the country at the National Restaurant Awards.
It seems Mr Pizarro can do no wrong with his sherry bar.
And everything’s sold out. Last time I was here, it was just the padrón peppers that had gone, but the dishes on the blackboard were being wiped out as often as Jonny Utah taking his virgin surf in Point Break. No more whitebait, no more clams with fino and jamon, no more girolles. We begin to panic order. 8pm, Thursday night is prime time at José.
Not that we’re disappointed by what does come. Padrón peppers are sweet – nicely oiled and succulent. They are quickly followed with a small plate of Jamón Iberico – small squares of luscious pink, the fat gorgeous, caramelised and glistening. The ham is from pigs fed with acorns for the last four months of their lives and hail from Extremadura, where José himself is from. Fat razor clams have a bursting sweetness, lifted by the salt-tang of chorizo cubes. There are prawns, with chilli and garlic, coated with an olive oil that’s almost banana-like in richness. It’s oil you want to lick and prawns you want to suck.
The menu changes almost every day, and today there’s a new addition – Iberico pork meatballs with tomato sauce with the unusual flavour of orange. The lightly battered hake with allioli is a wonder as it separates into silken flakes as you press into it. Rare Iberico pork fillet sprinkled with pimenton (smoked paprika) is a treat not seen much in London. The last time I had it was at Eyre Brothers, which I learned he introduced to the menu when he worked there.
The sherry list is curated by Master of Wines Tim Atkin and Jo Ahearne. But one feels the real key to the place’s success is that José is there, present in his restaurant, slicing away behind the leg of jamón.
Turns out, sherry should be drunk with dinner, not just for tapas. The general rule is that cold and light sherry like a Fino goes well with salty foods and lighter meats such as almonds, fish and chicken, whereas cold Manzanilla goes well with ham or darker meats.
The problem with the bar is that it’s a victim of its own success. There will be a wait, and there are no reservations. But true to his intention, this is a standing up, social place that’s fun. And “tapas bars are all about fun,” José says authoritatively.
His next venture will be Pizarro, which is down the road from José. I always thought the other downside of José (the first being that it’s just too popular), was that there wasn’t another tapas bar to swing by after a couple of plates.
But it seems this problem has been resolved. Pizarro promises to be more regional. Always known for the quality of his ingredients, José will introduce key specialities from the south such as gazpacho with crab. He mentions amazing roast partridge from La Mancha, although “England has such good partridge” – of course he will buy locally. Expect a daily fried fish special, and food from all the islands.
And he intends to change the perception of yet another unfashionable drink. The spotlight has fallen on Cava.
Says Jose: “Pizarro will be very focussed on Cava. Like sherry, Cava is a very underrated drink. If you come to Pizarro, I will show you how the drink should be drunk, and make people feel confident to go and order Cava. The best cava is Gramona – it’s wonderful! Light, crispy, refreshing. It makes me feel as though I’m back home.”
I’m sure we’d all like a sip of Gramona – and a taste of his homeland. 104 Bermondsey Street, SE1. Tel: 020 7403 4902.