Thursday, 8 December 2011

Pizarro lives up to expectations

Bermondsey Street SE1

Well, the soft opening is over.  Yes, I know I failed to alert you to it, but really the place has been packed.  Such is José Pizarro's hospitality that the guy's been working flat out trying not to disappoint anyone in the lead up to the formal opening this week.  I don't think I would have been doing him any favours by putting more pressure on the kitchen.  Anyway, Pizarro is now formally open, so get down to Bermondsey Street asap.  Informal and welcoming, the place looks a picture with much burnished wood, beautiful Spanish tiling and soft lighting.  You can take your pick of seating from cosy booths which could take as many as six slim people, tables for two or four, a long communal table and and a long table against the window facing the street.  At the back of the restaurant there's what I'd describe as a family table (pictured below) complete with shuttered window and lit by a chandelier.  Then there's the long inviting cava bar, running from the entrance to the open kitchen.  I'd say some 60 covers in all.  There's a private room too.

Family table
at Pizarro
Eating there last Wednesday, when dishes were being tried out, we feasted on  meltingly soft Ham Croquetas, Quail with Romesco sauce, Squid, potatoes & alioli, Anchovy, pimentoes and soft boiled egg and Cured Salmon 3-ways topped with an egg yolk.  Out of all of these dishes we could only fault the Romesco and Alioli for not being punchy enough.  A succulent Lamb and lentil dish and Secreto Iberico with mashed potato & pimento followed along with the star dish of tender Partridge with casseroled beans.  After all that, we could only manage Pear Sorbet with cava - a delicious ice which, for me, didn't quite work with the cava.

Despite the fact there was little room for improvement with the meal, it was striking how focused Jose and his staff were on getting feedback so that they could do better.  We left extremely well-fed and happy, but I've learned to eat at a restaurant at least twice before passing judgment so here is how my second visit went.

Pizarro plating
Secreto Iberico
8pm and after adding our name to the list for dinner (Pizarro has a no-booking policy) we join the crush at the cava bar.  There are about 75 people clearly enjoying themselves in a room entirely made up of hard surfaces, yet it feels buzzy rather than noisy.  The lighting casts a flattering glow but can be a tad too low for reading the menu.  Half way through a glass of cava, somehow, they conjure up two seats at the food end of the bar.  We've scored ring-side seats for chatting to the chefs and observing the care they take in cooking and presenting the food.  It's a masterclass.

The daily-changing menu offers a plate of Manuel Maldonado Jamon Iberico, at £20 the most expensive dish on the menu (with reason). Small dishes priced between £5.50 and £7.50 include Artichoke soup with truffle oil, and a choice of either crispy ham or manchego cheese; Butternut squash, Cabrales cheese and almonds; Duck livers, capers and fino; Prawns, cecina, chilli and garlic.  I have to check those Ham croquetas again - lovely flavoursome soft yielding inner and crunchy outer; and the marriage of Boquerones, red peppers and olives ticks the boxes of both delicious and virtuous.  Mains are priced between £12-15 and are large.   With our glasses of house red Jumilla (spicy and good), a Seabream dish comes as two beautifully cooked crispy-skinned fillets on a bed of fried potatoes.  Any oiliness is cut by a hot, sweet Vizcaina sauce (of onions, choriceros peppers and fish stock which comes from the Spanish Basque country, I think) and a few capers.  Pink-roasted Lamb comes on a bed of lentils and radicchio.  The piquancy and looseness of the lentil mix is a nice twist on the dish served to me a week ago.  We could have chosen Hake, black cabbage and clams; Secreto Iberico pork (a cut between the shoulder and loin), olive oil mash and piquillo peppers; or a dish of baked Manchego cheese canelones, silver chard and pine nuts. 

Watching so many plates of Chocolate, toast and caramel ice cream being lovingly prepared, I think I know what to expect.  We share one.  A thin slice of crisply-toasted bread is topped with a scoop of chocolate mousse and another of caramel  ice cream - a tiny pinch of salt on which is not forgotten.  There's a a scattering of what looks like grated chocolate but turns out to be chocolate breadcrumbs. Lovely flavours and textures. A couple of good cafe cortados set us up for the walk home with a bill of less than £70 (excl service) for two.

Service is excellent from an attentive and already pretty cohesive team and, despite the pressures of the kitchen, the chefs are enthusiastic and communicative.  The only problem now is choosing between Jos, just a few doors down, and Pizarro.  Choices, choices.

194 Bermondsey Street
London SE1 3TQ