Not quite the Barrafina 2.0 you were hoping for
I try not to write too much about the personalities in London’s restaurant business for many reasons. But when two of the people behind Barrafina, the capital’s landmark tapas mini-chain, strike out on their own then I can’t help but sit up and take notice. Nieves Barrigan and José Etura are probably annoyed at the endless comparisons between Barrafina and Sabor, their new child, but it’s a hard comparison to avoid with a tapas-style menu served at counter seating arrayed around an open kitchen. At first glance, only the equally-sized bar area, an upstairs dining room devoted to roast suckling pig and its Mayfair location help set Sabor apart from its distant Soho relatives.
First things first
Tomato bread is an obvious thing to order at a tapas-y restaurant, which makes Sabor’s unbalanced version all the more disappointing. While the tomato topping was sweet and umami, the bread underneath was oddly inconsistent – somewhat stodgy in some places; reasonably soft and pliable in others. The fruity sweet olive oil was more pleasing than the needless addition of cured and thinly-sliced but unmemorable ham. In a word: meh.
The black tomato salad was a far better tomato dish. Dense, juicy and reasonably umami tomato segments were aptly complimented by a repeat appearance of the olive oil and by the squidgy, fatty and peppery chunks of meaty chorizo. The promised confit artichokes were nowhere to be found, but I hardly minded.
Light yet meaty morsels of springy monkfish dotted a cloudy consommé heavy with umami. Although a richness of umami sounds like an unequivocally good thing, its bludgeon-like presence reminded me of a miso soup made with too much dashi. Not everything turned up to 11 is necessarily a good thing.
Duck breast was also unbalanced. While the meat was dense, there wasn’t enough fat and the skin was soft and characterless – always a missed opportunity as far as I’m concerned. The sticky, meaty and umami jus went someway to making up for this, as did the crisp, sharp salad and a welcome reappearance by the olive oil.
Smooth, thickly cut and evocatively salty scallops came in a crisp and sharp yet also fruity sweet sauce. A perfect pairing.
The nougat cream was akin to an exotic crème caramel rather than the candy-like nougats I’ve tried in Madrid and Lisbon. The bold walnut-like flavour of the dense yet light cream was undoubtedly a pleasure. The aniseed-tasting slick on top won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I enjoyed it as a counterpoint to the more obvious delights of this dessert.
Honey and saffron ice cream proved be exceptionally light and smooth. With a bit more elasticity and creaminess, it would’ve made for an excellent gelato. Underneath the malty crumb, the dominant taste was of saffron though with only a very transient floral sweet undertone hinting at the presence of honey.
Going back for seconds
The prawn croquetas was the only dish I tried at Sabor that clearly wore its bar snack origins on its sleeves. The reasonably crisp and oil-free shell was filled with a sweet cream that, while true to the crustacean, also bore a passing resemblance to prawn cocktail. While far from bad, I couldn’t evict the phrase ‘prawn cocktail fishcake’ from my head.
Sabor’s kitchen does have a talent for seafood. Springy squid-like chipirones came filled with an umami mince, the moreishness bolstered further by a sauce reminiscent of squid ink and heavily reduced anchovies. Battered hake felt like another dish tacked on the side, but I couldn’t find fault with the flaky meatiness of the fish, the supple and soft batter or the boldly garlicky aioli.
Reasonably springy and firm razor clams came in a lip-smacking garlic butter sauce.
The sweet undertone of the soft and fluffy Spanish tortilla was made even better by the dense meaty minerality of the salt cod bits inside.
Presa iberica was tougher than expected. While this cut of pork wasn’t without its sweet and umami charms, these were mostly attributable to the sauces. Disappointing.
Spherical doughnuts were somewhat heavy and stodgy – a surprising textural flaw given that Spanish kitchens and cooks helped give us churros which, at their best, are effortlessly light. I could forgive Sabor’s pastry chef given the musky caramel and bitter dark chocolate sauces. Combine both with the otherwise meh milk chocolate sauce as well as with the dusting of crushed hazelnuts and the result was akin to a particularly addictive form of Nutella. One that’s actually worthy of smearing all over your lover’s writhing body in the bathroom. Ahem.
Goat’s cheese ice cream with liquorice sauce almost sounds like a parody, a stereotyped view of what us Londoners eat in the minds of the rigidly parochial. Regardless, this was a superb dessert – the thin and smooth ice cream slick with the distinct but not overpoweringly earthy tang of goat’s milk. It was light and refreshing – adjectives hardly expected of something made from goat lactate (in my mind at least). Its gently musky charms were enhanced rather than diminished when taken with the sweet and bitter aniseedish sauce.
‘Brioche’ brings to mind images of something warm and fluffy, like a kitten nuzzling for hugs. The brioche here was oddly cold, clammy and stodgy – like the corpse of a vole brought in by said kitten when it has grown up into a vicious quadrupedal murder machine. Truffle shavings on top of the brioche didn’t add much earthiness or aroma, which meant the wispy, milky ricotta and fruity olive oil had to pick up the slack. Even that duo couldn’t save this bitterly disappointing dish.
Like the razor clams special before them, plump and springy prawns came in a spot-on garlic butter sauce. The head gunk was eminently slurpable, even it could’ve been a bit funkier. A special of langoustines were similarly prepared, but with the softer flesh shining through the garlic butter with its milkiness and then with its clean aftertaste.
Yielding, lightly earthy beetroot came paired with sharp, sweet and tangy orange. I could’ve done with more orange – the fruity specks were a bit too sparse for my liking – but this was still a delightful salad with both elements bound together by a fruity sweet olive oil and dollops of creme fraiche.
Ox tail arrived in an unexpected form. The meat was shed off the bone and then reconstituted into a croquette-like shape, packed in with pinenut (or possibly hazelnut) crumbs. Nevertheless, it was a meaty, moist and unsurprisingly nutty delight with a sinewy mouthfeel. Smooth and buttery potato dauphinoise topped with crisp, refreshing parsley made for a classy accompaniment.
Despite the oddly thin and crisp pastry, the rhubarb and mascarpone tart was still more than good enough to keep my gob shut for several minutes. The tartness of the softened rhubarb meshed well with the lactic tang of the cheese.
Sabor’s smooth sorbets came with a malty brown sugar crumb, for whatever reason. The blood orange flavour was surprisingly muted, but the lemon variant was stridently sour and citrusy.
Roast suckling pig upstairs at Sabor
Up until this point, I’ve only covered the tapas-style dishes at Sabor’s downstairs counter. While I could devote even more verbiage to its offerings or to the shorter, separate jamon-dominated menu at the bar, no review of Sabor would be complete without mentioning the upstairs dining room. It not only feels different with semi-communal tables instead of a counter around an open kitchen, the menu is focussed around Segovian-style suckling pig with a few other dishes playing supporting roles.
Segovia is a town just north of Madrid, within easy enough reach for a day trip. Despite enjoying the immensely picturesque Roman and medieval architectural charms of the town a few years back, I never did get to sample its famed dish of roast suckling pig (I fouled up the reservations like a total novice).
I therefore can’t say how Sabor’s take on this iconic porcine dish compares to the versions back in Segovia, but my god does it stand up well against London’s other piggy dishes. The remarkably even crispness of the crackling was a wafer-thin marvel. The meat underneath was deserving of a standing ovation – seemingly weightless, yet moist and milky with mouthfuls alternating between an understated sweetness and a gentle unctuousness. It was even better when taken with the slurpably moreish gravy, served on the side. It easily ranks among the best of the many swineflesh meals I’ve had in this town. None of the other suckling pigs I’ve had in London are worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as these squealing beauty.
The octopus segments were a tad too soft, but it was easy to overlook this lapse in mouthfeel given the smoky, lightly piquant sauce. This seafood-and-sauce combo was suitably tantalising and enticing.
Rice-studded slices of morcilla tasted more like haggis than other types of black pudding, but this was no bad thing as I love haggis. Hearty and malty, it went down a treat with the sweet, fleshy piquillo peppers and the unctuously squidgy, life-givingly meaty chorizo.
Although the goat’s cheese ice-cream in liquorice wasn’t as carefully and artfully presented as it had been before, its brain-ticklingly nuanced layers still tasted just as wonderful.
Cujada turned out to be a panna cotta-style pudding, although that comparison doesn’t quite do this dessert justice. The milkiness and creaminess of this quivering just-set pud was aptly topped with a crisp and nutty crust. Light, yet addictively flavoursome. Spot on.
If everything at Sabor was as superbly well-crafted as the suckling pig, then I’d have no hesitation whatsoever in recommending this restaurant. As it is, there are just one too many wobbly dishes that need refinement or rethinking. Both this and the somewhat haphazard service, ranging from mumbly indifference at worst to friendly but inefficient at best, are surprising given the pair of seasoned operators both in the front and the back of the house at Sabor.
Then there’s the scope of the menu which, with the exception of the suckling pig, feels surprisingly unambitious – a sort of Barrafina 1.5 or 2.0 beta. That doesn’t sound like a bad thing at first, but the hyperbolic praise for Barrafina over the years has lost sight of its similarly uneven quality. That was acceptable for a mini-chain that had to be merely good enough to beat the low standards set by the likes of La Tasca and Iberica; it’s not acceptable for a singular restaurant meant to go up against the likes of The Salt Yard group and Jose.
I wish I had the time of my life at Sabor. I really do. Instead, I just had a really good pigging out. That’ll have to do – for now.
What to order: Black tomato salad; Almost all the desserts; Roast suckling pig; Seafood specials
What to skip: Perhaps the duck breast
Address: 35-37 Heddon Street, Mayfair, London W1B 4BR
Phone: 020 3319 8130
Opening Hours: Tuesday-Saturday noon-14.30 and 17.30-22.30. Sunday 13.00-18.00. Closed Monday.
Reservations: only taken for the upstairs half of the restaurant – essential.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks: £70 approx. £100 if you push the boat out.