One of my favourite new restaurants of 2011 was José, the eponymous sherry and tapas bar located in Bermondsey. Chef and owner, José Pizarro’s no nonsense, fresh and deceptively simple menu absolutely nailed modern Spanish tapas and had food bloggers, restaurant critics and punters alike singing it’s praises, so much so that the place is consistently packed. No bad thing, believe it or not, it adds something to its charm as you can eat perched at the bar, off a barrel top or on any space you can cram yourself into. Muchos authenticas as we often say in Essex.
The end of the year saw sister restaurant, Pizarro open just down the road; bigger, swankier (you can actually sit down) and just a bit more refined, it’s an opening I’d been looking forward to for ages. As it turns out, my birthday was the very opportunity for a visit, and so there I was on a rather frigid December evening, standing with ‘E’ at the bar in a very packed restaurant, sipping some very nice Cava and waiting for a table.
Now, before I write this up I need to make a few things clear. Pizarro was so newly open, that the paint was still wet on the toilet doors. It was late December, a notoriously manic time for any restaurant, packed full of big groups on work nights out etc, and finally ‘E’ had arranged this meal for me as a Birthday treat. Chef José knew we were visiting and we were treated by him as his guests and as such didn’t pay for everything we ate and drank. Which, I’ve tried not to let affect my opinion of the food or the restaurant, but is something that needs to said for the sake of transparency.
After a bit of a wait, this being a no reservation restaurant, we ended up being seated at the bar with front row seats watching the chefs preparing the food right in front of us. I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather have been sitting. It’s absolutely fascinating to eat and watch the workings of a kitchen at full tilt dealing with the hectic demands of a packed out restaurant, pure theatre.
As we studied the menu, a small bowl of cauliflower and radishes appeared to nibble at. We decided to let Chef José Pizarro pick out dishes for us, which we mostly shared. This proved to be a wise move, as we got to try a good cross section of the menu and some things we might not have necessarily ordered.
To start, one of the best things I’ve eaten all year, Beetroot Cured Salmon, Capers and an Egg Yolk – essentially a kind of Salmon tartar. We were told to break the yolk and mix it through everything. Frigging amazing. The egg-coated salmon had a silky, fresh creaminess, reminding me, unsurprisingly of breakfast. It was very simple and rustic, yet so effective. Beautiful.
Following this, for me only as ‘E’ is a pescetarian, a half portion of Jamon Iberico Manuel Maldonado. An absolute treat, small wafer thin pieces of melt in the mouth, intensely savoury acorn fed ham. If I had the cash, I could sit and eat a plate of this, washed down with glass after glass of cold fino sherry all day long. My only regret was I stuffed the lot in no time at all.
Artichoke, Cauliflower, Soft Cheese and Walnut was nicely put together, and we certainly enjoyed eating it, but following on from standout dishes like the cured salmon and Iberico ham, it felt a bit overshadowed.
A half portion of the same amazing Croquetas they serve down the road at José. Absolutely beautiful, light, creamy cheesiness containing small pieces of ham and literally melt in the mouth.
Boquerones, Roast Red Peppers and Olives, topped with a soft-boiled egg was another standout dish. The marinated anchovies themselves beautifully subtle and understated combining well with the other flavours Again, simple and rustic but well thought out.
Comedian Stewart Lee has a sketch, where he equates big prawns to quality of life. After eating the big prawns at Pizarro, I can kind of understand why. Cooked on the plancha and served simply with chilli and garlic (and with a plate of Serrano Ham on the side for me – surf and turf style), bloody hell, these were good prawns. If you visit, definitely order these.
As a dish, Butternut squash, Blue Goats Cheese and Almonds didn’t really work as well as it should. The flavours did, massively. The earthy squash, the salty cheese scattered throughout with the sweetness of pomegranate, spot on. But, served in a scooped out baby butternut squash, which seemed to be just a vehicle for the filling and mostly inedible, I felt there just wasn’t enough to actually eat for £6.50. It’s just a couple of mouthfuls really. But, stuffed silly with the same filling, this could be a winner, as it stands, I wouldn’t recommend it. This said, another diner seated nearby demolished the entire plate, so either we were unlucky in that our squash was undercooked or she had the eating tenacity of a mountain goat.
Duck Livers, Capers and Fino however, a resounding thumbs up. With the beautiful, savoury liver flavour and an underlying sweetness from the sherry. It was another superb rustic dish and something I’d definitely order again.
‘E’ tucked into her main of Salt Cod, Potatoes and Vizcaina (a Basque tomato and red pepper sauce). A great chunk of fish sitting on a piquant sauce and crisp fried slices of potato. ‘E’ really liked this, saying it was quite spicy but really well balanced and delicious.
I was by this time stuffed silly and just a bit drunk (it was my birthday after all) Nevertheless, I happily ate a dish of Iberico Pork Cheeks, Olive Oil Mash and Almonds. The cheeks were so soft; they collapsed into meaty shreds at the touch of a fork. It was pure winter comfort food of the sort I like best. Outstanding.
Our main dishes were accompanied by a bowl of chicory and crisp mixed leaf salad, tossed with a really unusual vermouth vinegar and honey dressing. This was apparently complimentary and served with every main course.
Coasting over the finish line, both stuffed to bursting we celebrated with a shared dessert of chocolate, toast and hazelnut ice cream. The chocolate in this case being a quenelle of incredibly rich mousse, combined with the hazelnut and the toast, it reminded us of Nutella chocolate spread – which believe me, is no bad thing. A fantastic light(ish) end to a superb dinner.
I had a bloody good meal at Pizarro, so good in fact, after writing this and remembering what I ate – I’m now gagging to revisit. Apart from the butternut squash dish, everything else we ate was incredible, nothing too fancy or pretentious, exactly as with José down the road, just really good, honest cooking of superb ingredients. The ‘heart on its sleeve’ simplicity that both José and Pizarro exude seemingly so effortlessly is a formula for success that many restaurants strive for but few achieve. Well-done José for doing it again!
194 Bermondsey Street