104 Bermondsey Street
The figure of José Pizarro standing on the corner of Bermondsey Street and Morocco Street, mobile phone glued to ear, was an all too common sight this spring. Keeping a close eye on his first venture since leaving the kitchens of 'Brindisa' has paid off in a tapas and sherry bar with a truly Spanish feel. Small it may be but, apart from a problematic constricted section of the bar which needs to be carefully managed, it has arrived perfectly formed. Hams hang at one side of the bar, a glass counter at the other displays some of what's on offer. Marble-topped counters give it a sleek look but wood, red brick, some tiling, old light fittings and warm staff make for a cosy atmosphere.
It's been in soft opening phase for a couple of weeks and the bills being reduced by 50% have pulled in the crowds, but the staff have hit the ground running and already it feels almost fully formed. From tomorrow they have another hurdle to jump when they start charging full prices in a street that has a number of good eating options. The neighbourhood feel of Bermondsey Street helps, but 'Josẽ has the feel of walking into the best tapas bar in Barcelona (and that's damn good). Pizarro and his staff are in no way complacent. A public holiday two weeks' after opening is a trial to any business, with suppliers taking a break and customers an unknown quantity. Arriving early for lunch today it was clear that some quick thinking about the menu was going on as fresh supplies came through the door but the customers who came in after us would not have known of the extra stress put on the kitchen. All was calm and controlled once the orders started to come in.
The food is centred around the best seasonal produce. Born in a small agricultural village in Extramadura, Pizarro grew up with quality fresh produce always available. With an emphasis on "bright flavours, simple techniques and not too many ingredients", you will not get Spanish molecular gastronomy. The basics are here, from the perfect Pan con Tomate, using the lightest of breads from St John, the Classic Tortilla, Patatas Bravas to plates of silky Jamόn Ibérico and impeccable Jamόn Croquettes. Asparagus cooked on the griddle and served with either Jamon or Manchego was seasonal and good but Hake fried in a feather-light batter with a dollop of allioli stood out, as did a dish of Peas, poached egg, migas and chorizo. 'Specials' when we lunched were a Tortilla of Spinach layered with walnuts and Picos blue cheese which worked really well and, from the plancha, the freshest sardines were plainly served and some large, juicy prawns with chillies and garlic provoked several more orders.
Sherries have equal prominence to wine on the drinks menu and, all are available by the glass or bottle . A Palo Cortado Apόstoles matched the food well as did an El Quintanal Rueda. Even at full price our bills would have come in at under £50 for two (service is not included) for food and a glass of sherry and of wine each. I ate at Josẽ twice over the past fortnight for two reasons. I wanted to make sure it was good before I sent anyone there - I've learned the hard way that first impressions can be wrong - and, well, who wouldn't at these prices. I will definitely be back.
UPDATE: Pizarro restaurant is now also open a few doors down at 194 Bermondsey Street.
104 Bermondsey Street
London SE1 3UB
Tel: 020 7403 4902 (no reservations)