As a final flurry of snow whipped through the streets of London last week, I headed south. Alas not that far. To south London, more precisely Bermondsey, in search of a restaurant that has been lingering on my ‘must taste’ list for far too long. But as anyone who knows London is aware, crossing the Thames can sometimes be like crossing the Atlantic. At last Pizarro awaited me, snow or no snow. En route I got a close-up of the still empty Shard shooting up into the freezing skies – here she blows—
For me, the name Pizarro has always been linked to the theatre-set town of Trujillo, in Spain’s Extremadura region, where that evil conquistador Francisco Pizarro, the scourge of Peru, originated. It’s also deep stork country, where clapping bills create a soundtrack as you climb up through town. Here in funky Bermondsey the name has rather different connotations, as it is attached to a cool restaurant owned by a certain José Pizarro, chef extraordinaire and suave purveyor of fine food from Spain. He does in fact hail from Extremadura, as I discovered when I met him at a wine-tasting event a few weeks ago, but his heart is now in London, luckily for us.
So a warming Iberian lunch seemed the right antidote for this icy day, and I was far from disappointed. Pizarro is a great place to go for a chilled but professional restaurant. A long, L-shaped bar, tiled in neo-azulejo style, fronts an open kitchen and also divides the large space between dining at tables and perching on a bar-stool. It reminded me of the Barcelona institution, Cal Pep, where hungry punters line up to squeeze in at the long counter and indulge their seafood fancies while watching the chef floor-show inches away. Here at Pizarro that clearly happens in the evening, leaving the afternoon for prepping and the happy few that drop by.
The excellent value menu of two courses for £17 (three for £20) was tempting but I opted for the blackboard specials, kicking off with a succulent little feast of prawn, mushroom and chilli, perfectly unified to warm body and soul with that vital chilli kick.
Across the table my partner’s artichoke with jamon was less successful: too much green, not enough red. Then came my Cod a la llauna, or rather Bacalla a la llauna, a Catalan dish of cod, pan-fried then baked with garlic, silky red pepper, paprika, olive oil and a splash of wine. Delicious, and beautifully balanced with soft white beans.
While waiting for our order, I sipped a glass of Amontillado Contrabandista from the venerable Valdespino Bodega, said to be the oldest in Jerez. Disappointingly, I was disapppointed – after my recent Montilla tastings, my palate was used to a drier, nuttier version. Still, a glass of Graciano red from Navarra subsequently won me over. Altogether I loved Pizarro, it is comfortable yet quirkily designer led (exposed brick, empty picture frames, chandeliers) and service is efficient and friendly. I’ll head back one evening – when I can book the river-crossing.
Meanwhile in the backstreets of central London I returned to an old Spanish favourite, Cigala. Fired up by Pizarro, I wanted to compare. Cigala is tucked away in another little enclave of food, wine and design, namely Lambs Conduit Street, on the edge of Bloomsbury. I first went there soon after it opened about 12 years ago (don’t quote me on that figure), just when Spanish food and wine was catching on in London and my book New Tapas hit the shelves.
The man behind it is chef Jake Hodges who co-founded Moro back in 1997. Over the years Cigala has appropriated a loyal following, created a downstairs bar and expanded its menu, though changing little of the pared-back (some would say bare) look of the restaurant. This is where to eat tapas classics from all over Spain, served with modern presentation and using quality produce. My American friends were overjoyed to find affordable Albariño wine which we followed up with a smooth Ribera del Duero – in fact the wine-list is almost biblical for any Hispanophile. All reasonably priced and cheerfully served so, phew, at least north of the river our Iberian outpost remains intact.