If I didn’t already know that Spain, like Greece, is in the financial toilet, spinning in a whirlpool of economic excrement that is causing job loss, home loss and a lack of prospects that is driving the country’s youth abroad in their droves, I might think it was on top of the world. But with the football over and Nadal out of Wimbledon, the flags have been temporarily lowered leaving Spain’s greatest export – it’s cuisine – left to remind us how fab this country really is. Of course, here in London, we are in the midst of an all-encompassing love affair with Spanish cooking, and with more tapas, raciones and pinchos being served up per square mile than you can shake a well cured leg of jamón at, we are not likely to forget Spain’s many merits in a hurry.
And so it was that on Wednesday night The Heid and I, along with two friends, tapped into London’s latest culinary trend with a visit to Donostia (Basque for Spain’s capital of gastronomie, San Sebastian), where we hoped to enjoy some of the fabulous tapas and pinxtos (the Basque spelling of pinchos) that we have learnt to love already on trips to San Sebastian’s tapas bars proper. With head chef Tomasz Baranksi at the helm – previously head chef at one of my favourite London tapas joints, Barrafina – and some winning reviews to boot, we felt sure to not to be disappointed.
Tucked behind Marble Arch, Donostia is a light, airy and fresh space with huge wall-hung oak panels bringing warmth to an otherwise fairly-spartan interior. A long, marble-topped bar runs down the left-hand side as you enter and here you can perch comfortably to enjoy picoteco such as almonds, toast with aioli or mini saussicon alongside cool glasses of Txakoli (a dry Basque white wine) or beakers of the sagardo (cider), for which northern Spain is famed.
We were offered a choice of tables in either the front or back room. The back room was chilly and with no-one else in there at 8.30pm (some Spaniards came – typically – much later), we went for the front. Being a bit of a design geek, I noticed what I think were Hans Wegner Wishbone Chairs round every table – unmistakably elegant pieces of furniture that felt like the real-deal and added a subtly sophisticated note to the interior. But back to the food.
Our friends had a drama and were going to be very late, so we cracked on without them ordering three pinxtos that included some dreamy ham croquetas that were every bit as ‘crispy and creamy’ as we had been promised; tempura prawns that were juicy with a light, fresh batter offset sweetly by the addition of fresh mango; and a leek and egg salad, a mayonnaisy dollop of yuk on top of white bread that was just not to my taste – sorry!
With still no sign from our friends, we got on with ordering some tapas. The txipirones (baby squid) were crispy and fresh but slightly lacking in flavour, the pil-pil (cod cheeks in a garlic and chilli sauce) were beautifully cooked, delicate scallops of cod but the sauce slightly oversalted. Our friends arrived in time to share the best tapas dish of the evening, the pluma (pork fillet with a romesco sauce) which was a fine piece of meat, cooked to perfection with rich, fatty flavours that mingled seductively with the tomato to create a veritable fiesta en mi boca. We also enjoyed some griddled asparagus with shavings of manchego and some pipperak (blistered Padron pepers with sea salt), which were joyous.
Still feeling peckish (our friends, not us), they ordered a txokolate (chocolate mousse with orange zest), a higo (figs with vanilla cream and hazlenuts) and a lima (lemon tart with summer fruit sauce) for the table to share. I took one bite of the txokolate and, with no concern for the other puddings, or indeed my friends and husband, who may have been hoping for a mouthful, wolfed the lot. And I’m afraid that, with the memory of that smooth, rich chocolate and sprinkling of slightly chewy, orangey slithers still tingling my tastebuds, I’m not even sorry. I was powerless!
Overall, and I am being fussy here (one is allowed to be when being charged up to £12 for a plate of tapas), I felt that there were a few dishes at Donostia that could do with some tweaking. There were times – the croquetas, the tempura prawns, the pork and romesco sauce and that sublime chocolate mousse – when I was in sheer culinary Spanish heaven, but others when I felt it could probably do a bit better. If Donostia wants to hold its own as a leader amongst the plethora of new tapas joints opened in the capital, it would be a fool not to try. (But do go and eat there anyway – it’s great really).
10 Seymour Place
T: 0203 620 1845
* All photographs (apart from the top one) were taken by Richard Heald and feature here by kind permission of Donostia.