Monday, 7 September 2009
Ibérica, Great Portland Street
Given that we're supposedly in the middle of the deepest recession since the rise of Nazism, and the daily papers are so full of tales of economic doom and gloom that there's barely any room left for Jordan and Peter André's latest war of words, it's perhaps surprising that the restaurant industry seems to be sailing through it all largely unaffected. You would have thought that in times of economic hardship, frivolities like fine dining would be the first to suffer, but it turns out that restaurant closures and big-name openings in 2009 are nothing out of the ordinary. Speaking at the launch of the new Harden's restaurant guide, Peter Harden explains why this might be the case:
“Everyone, including us, thought that London’s restaurants were in for a bloodbath in 2009. Well, it just didn’t happen. Earlier this decade, closures twice rose into the 80s, and in 2003 they shot up to 113. Bizarrely, however, this year’s figure of 64 was actually just below even ‘normal’ (65+) levels.
There would seem to be no single explanation of why, during a period of such economic upheaval, the low rate of restaurant closures has so confounded the pessimists. One of the more important reasons may be that most restaurant-going Londoners are still in employment, and many of them have had their disposable income boosted by lower mortgage payments. Another is that active promotion by restaurants is no longer seen as embarrassing, and they have more sophisticated promotional instruments at their disposal (most particularly the offer-driven websites). Yet another may be that many restaurants close in London not because they have to, but because someone with a new venture in mind makes them an offer: if the banks take fright at providing finance for such new ventures, it diminishes the number of purchasers who can provide an exit route for restaurateurs wanting to sell up.”
What I have noticed, however, and this is purely personal and circumstantial, is a large number of restaurants offering budget lunch deals, often with catchy names like 'Credit Crunch Lunch' or 'Recession-busting menu'. Lunch was always the best time to sample the food of good restaurants at low prices, but in the last few months there has been an explosion in these types of "Two courses for £10, Three for £15" deals. More ambitious than most is the brand-new "Expressions" menu from Spanish tapas joint Ibérica, on Great Portland Street, which offers eight bitesize samples of top Spanish cooking, complete with a glass of Tio Pepe sherry, for the grand total of £16. I was invited (and yes, that means I didn't pay for it) to try it out last Friday lunchtime.
I know some bloggers' attitude to food served on slates, but I happen to think it's a perfectly acceptable method of presenting food, especially food as visually appealing as this. From left to right, we have:
Cherry gazpacho with arbequina olive oil. Too sweet for my liking and with no discernable chilli hit, this was a bit of an odd concept. It's not like people have been eating gazpacho for donkey's years thinking "If only this had some cherry in it".
Air cured beef cecina with almond vinaigrette. Excellent beef and a lovely silky vinaigrette. The flavours were subtle but the textures worked very well.
Fresh Cured Anchovies with peppers and onion 'pipirana'. I'm a bit funny about my anchovies, and much prefer the salty briny Catalonian style to the version here which just tasted like a pickled herring. So it didn't do much for me, but I know some people would love it.
Pan fried monkfish 'Pixin'. This was a moist little morsel of monkfish, gently fried and served with a slice of lemon. Simple and beautiful.
Chorizo lollypop[sic]. Strong flavours, and a brave concept, but I found the texture of the casing around the chorizo a little stodgy. The sauce it was resting on was lovely and acidic though.
Artichoke with pear aioli. This was great. Very strong and fresh-tasting artichoke on top of a light garlic mayonnaise.
Iberica ham croquettes. Again, superb rich flavours and a delicate little parcel of food with just the right amount of crunch on the outside.
Grilled Iberica Pork loin 'Presa' with mojo rojo. Best 'till last. The flavour of this pork was so extraordinary it was like aged beef. The meat was cooked absolutely perfectly, with a crispy char on the outside and still very slightly pink and tender within. Amazing.
With so much going on, you'd be hard-pressed to not enjoy this menu even if, like me, you found one or two of the items a little hard to grasp. And it's worth repeating that all these labour-intensive and pretty little canapés come with a glass of great sherry, plus good soft house bread and olive oil to dip, for £16. That's a bit of a steal, really.
If nothing else, it's made me want to revisit Ibérica in the evening for a huge slab of that pork loin and another sherry, which I suppose is the idea. I don't suppose Ibérica, in common with many restaurants, are making a great deal of money out of their lunch deals but if it keeps people eating out and serves as a mini showcase for the kitchens talents, then it all works out well in the end. So salud, and credit crunch be damned.