Craig Butcher reviews El Pirata de Tapas and chats with head chef Omar Allibhoy – protégé of El Bulli’s Ferran Adria – to learn just how easy it is to make superb tapas at home.
Omar Allibhoy has cooking in his blood – from the tender age of 5 he has been learning to cook Spanish cuisine at home in Madrid under the tutillage of his mother. By the age of 14, he had enrolled in evening classes at a local cookery school for the unemployed, balancing these with his daytime studies at school.
Formal training under Ferran Adria, the modern-day Spanish master at three-starred Michelin restaurant El Bulli and under Jason Atherton at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze restaurant followed. Now aged just 25 he is Head Chef at El Pirata de Tapas in Westbourne Grove, sister restaurant to Mayfair’s El Pirata.
“At El Bulli I learnt Ferran’s philosophy – to understand the chemistry of food, and to respect organisation,” says Allibhoy. “From cooking using the best quality produce, I realised the most important thing is to follow the recipe – to rigorously follow the instructions within the systems that are in place. Do this, and it works like clockwork.”
There is a perception that recreating tapas at home can be difficult, but Omar disagrees. “The key thing is to keep it simple, using two or three ingredients – I’m a great believer in this. Chorizo is always incredibly simple to use – you can pan-fry a beautiful chorizo with broad beans alongside a nice little salad. Always include a light salad, great in Spring but adaptable throughout the year. You can also use leftovers – as a kid we always used something the next day – a main course becomes next day’s garnish. There is beautiful fish available in this country so use it – squid, sardines, fresh fish can be pan-fried, served as it is with a little garlic and olive oil. Bruschetta is also easy, perhaps grilled chicken skewers with a little garlic – it’s all very simple. But it also makes sense to cook for four or more people – it makes creating a number of dishes worth it and is a cheap way of entertaining.”
Craig Butcher reviews El Pirata de Tapas
If El Pirata in London’s Mayfair is a rather bookish grown-up, then sister restaurant El Pirata de Tapas is the youthful, edgier experimentalist. Located at the leafy end of London’s Westbourne Grove and doing a roaring trade in a predominantly residential area, the locals clearly love it. It is packed upstairs and down on the Thursday evening .
A long, narrow ground-floor room is decked in burnt oak, mahogany furniture and low lighting. Cream walls are adorned by lively Spanish prints while the full-length bar along the back wall provides a friendly focus to the room. A feature wall of laid-down Spanish wines stands out while downstairs a cosy room is accentuated by whole legs of Iberico ham hanging abbatoir-style down one wall.
It’s been said that you can tell the quality of a restaurant by the quality of the sides and El Pirata de Tapas is off to a flier. From the ‘nibbles’ menu, bread and foamed aioli is outstanding – fresh ciabatta-style bread with a pleasingly soft crunch and a light aioli opens the palate nicely without over-reliance on garlic while Padrón peppers, fried in olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt, make great finger food with the occasional and welcome chilli zing.
Two or three main dishes per person fit the bill perfectly, allowing a revelrie of flavours and styles without over-indulging. A salad of endives with Valdeón (a blue-veined Spanish) cheese foam and grated walnuts was crisp and the foam hinted at richness without being cloying. Pan-roasted cod, braised red cabbage and jus along with scallops in its velouté and seasonal greens were expertly executed with Spring asparagus fresh from Almeria, Spain. Black rice, squid ink and black aioli was strikingly presented with a brushing of squid-ink around the bowl rim while its deep richness of flavour and tender squid was lightened by a separate tortilla dish.
El Pirata’s signature dish, pork cheeks in Rioja jus and confit new potatoes was outstanding – the slow-cooked meat gently flaking into its rich sauce. Desserts provide a rousing finale, ambitious and modern European in approach. A chocolate brownie with saffron toffee was well-executed, while the cardamom-infused rice pudding with caramel crispies was artful and refreshing.
With a well-crafted wine list exclusively of Spanish wines complementing the food offering superbly and an excellent standard of presentation, no wonder the locals keep coming back to this friendly neighbourhood restaurant.
El Pirata de Tapas
115 Westbourne Grove
London, W2 4UP
T: 020 7727 5000