Cod cheeks Pil Pil
Cod cheeks don't get better than this. These little morsels, as desirable as the 'oysters' on a chicken, can be ruined in the wrong hands. At Donostia in London they certainly know how to bring out the best in this traditional Basque dish in Pil Pil sauce. Here the gelatinous quality of the cheeks was extracted by cooking in oil and put to luscious use in the sauce infused with just the right amount of guindillas (very small, hot peppers). The attention to detail is evident from this photograph but you'll have to trust me on the taste and texture. Let's just say this is a dish to keep all to yourself.
Opened 3 months ago by Nemanja Borjanovic and Melody Adams, owners of Mountain Valley Wines, Donostia (Basque for San Sebastian) was inspired by buying trips to the nregion. Ex-Barrafina chef, Tomasz Baranski is heading up the kitchen. Barrafina is one of my favourite places so expectations were high on the two visits I made to Donostia before writing this piece. Sitting at the kitchen bar, the focus and attention to detail is evident but staff are more than happy to talk about the food and drink if you show interest. This is how I discovered the Angulas stuffed peppers were not to be missed. Eel leaves me cold but here tiny elvers, shipped across from a trusted Spanish supplier, are stuffed into small red peppers, given a featherlight coating of batter and briefly fried. The matchstick sized Angulas are surprisingly meaty and make for a deliciously satisfying small dish.
The menu is headed up Picoteo £2-3, Pintxo £3-4.50, Cold Plates of fish from £4.80 to hand-carved 3 year old Jamon Iberico at £18.00, and Tapas to encompass the rest with dishes between £3-19. A Pintxo of Crab on little gem lettuce was a lovely fresh mouthful, served in the Basque way on a soft piece of bread rather than the crisp slice I would have preferred. Croquetas are flavoursome and pillowy, putting to shame the gooey, floury mess I was presented with in another London tapas bar recently. Courgette flower stuffed with goats cheese, lightly battered, deep fried and served with orange blossom honey was good. Lightness is a feature at Donostia, even the Classic Tortilla managed to be airy and almost virtuous. A serving of two cuts of plump Pluma Iberica on a perfect, crunchy Romesco sauce was juicy, tender and full of flavour, and served only just pink as Pluma ought to be.
Puddings are not an afterthought here. A Lemon Tart tasted great but though the pastry was clearly very fine, time in a fridge had tragically softened it - the Food Standards Agency strikes again. It was saved by being given the sugar and blow-torch treatment before serving, creating a wafer thin caramel layer to restore a little crunch. Purple figs were warmed briefly on the plancha, split and stuffed with caramelised citrus peel and toasted hazelnuts. Served with a kind of liquid marmalade sauce and vanilla cream it was completely delicious.
Given the ownership, you would expect wines to be good and the ones I've tasted so far certainly are. Rueda is always a lunchtime favourite with me and the Riojas work well. The "wines of the week" include some real gems. There are also a couple of Sidras at £1 and £2 for a Basque-country glass. Both are fresh and lively and, as you'd expect, go really well with the food.
Basque, especially San Sebastian, cuisine relies on the very best basic ingredients, absolute freshness and pure flavours. For variety of ingredients, this region, wedged between sea and mountains, benefits from a mild, rainy climate. Partly why, as Paul Richardson points out in A Late Dinner, "... the cuisine of this land has a wider, richer repertoire than that of any other Spanish region (though Catalunya runs close)." If we see this reflected in the kitchen at Donostia Londoners are in for a treat, and it has certainly started well.
The location could be a problem but I really hope not. On a quiet street of small shops just north-west of Marble Arch, it's hardly a food hot-spot. The small, 40 cover, space, is smart with white walls, marble and stainless steel softened by panels of warm, knotted wood. It can seem a little chilly until the space fills up but with food this good and focused, welcoming staff, I don't think they're going to find it difficult to build up a loyal customer base. Tomasz's Cod Cheeks Pil Pil dish and those figs alone are well worth crossing London for.
10 Seymour Place
London W1H 7ND