Does a regular diner reach the same conclusion about a restaurant as a food pro, who may get special treatment if recognised?* Laura Rowe and olive reader Emma Geary compare notes on this new Spanish restaurant in central London
Looking for places to eat in central London? Read our review of Sabor restaurant on Heddon Streetand see if an expert restaurant critic comes to the same conclusion as an olive reader…
The pro restaurant reviewer
Our editor Laura Rowe has reviewed restaurants for more than a decade. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @lauraroweeats.
South London-based Emma Geary loves Catalan food. She eats out twice a week and her best experience was at Parlour in Kensal Green, featuring blue cheese custard and salted caramel Rolos. Her guilty pleasure is a cheddar and marmite toastie with a fried egg on top.
Sabor means ‘flavour’ in Spanish, and there’s plenty of that in the dishes on offer over the restaurant’s two levels. The bookable upstairs ‘asador’ is focussed around a wood fired oven offering the likes of Galician pulpo a feira (octopus cooked in a copper pan) and whole suckling pig.
Downstairs is reserved for walk-ins. Wait in the brick-walled bar area and whet your appetite with mushroom croquetas and cured presa Iberica. The majority of seating downstairs is at a counter overlooking the open kitchen where the chefs prepare chipirones (squid) bathed in black ink, Jerusalem artichoke and jamón tortilla, and chargrilled potatoes with sobrasada.
Charismatic José welcomes guests with vermouth on tap, sherries, txakolis (Basque wines) and more. With a friendly service style and nods to Andalucían tapas bars (colourful tiles, high tables), Sabor has the authentic feel of bars found all over Spain.
One of the most exciting openings of the year, this regional Spanish restaurant is as predictably brilliant as you’d expect from a pair that have been the driving force behind Barrafina’s success for the past decade.
We queued for 45 minutes before opening and then were let in and seated (happily) in front of the draft Estrella (there’s vermouth on tap, too) and open kitchen. *I wasn’t recognised – but Nieves waved on our way out.
The all-Spanish wine list begins with txakoli, the lightly effervescent Basque wine that’s poured from a dramatic height. Our unusual bottle of rosé was fresh and zingy with a touch of red fruit and, along with a couple of saline fino sherries, were a welcome foil to the rich, fried food to come.
Plates are small and come when they’re ready. First for us, camarones fritos (from the bar menu) – tiny shrimp, deep-fried, and served with a crispy, paprika-dusted fried egg, whose molten yolk acted as a natural sauce. Crisp, golden prawn croquetas were as good as any I’ve ever tasted in their homeland, and rich with that roasted shell, holiday flavour.
A crimson carabinero the size of an adult hand, its antennae tickling the edge of the plate, was tender and spankingly fresh. Table etiquette fell to the floor, heads were sucked. Chubby mussels ‘a la Bilbaina’ slurped up a light sauce of tomatoes, sherry, sherry vinegar and herbs.
Sobrasada, the soft paprika sausage from Menorca, came in a rusty rubble on top of lightly crushed new potatoes, bobbing in a garlic cream, which we learn is formed of thrice-blanched garlic (sweet, mellow and nutty) blended with chicken stock and cream. It was explicitly good.
Desserts ticked every box – chocolatey bombas, sharp and creamy rhubarb and mascarpone tartlets, and an inspired goat’s cheese ice cream with a liquorice sauce rounded off a perfect meal.
THE BOTTOM LINE
To dine at the heart of the action at Sabor, you can’t book, and you can’t sit in parties bigger than four, but it’s worth any first-come-first-serve frustrations. Exemplary ingredients, soulful cooking and a uniquely warm Spanish buzz. Sabor is everything you want it to be, and more.
Total for two, excluding service: £118
Our punter’s Sabor, London restaurant review…
On the Saturday evening of Sabor’s opening week, we were hosted at the counter which tightly frames the open tapas kitchen. Our waiter exuded warmth, sweetly indulging my attempts at chatting away in Spanish. Though he served our surrounding covers, he felt like ‘our’ personal waiter, as he told stories of the artwork on our wine bottle, and the Rueda bodega who produced it – we felt immediately welcomed around the family table.
To start, I opted for a Cloudy Cava – an inventive almond bellini, with the pudding-like sweetness of a Bakewell tart. My guest was served a crystalline-smooth Gin Mare, garnished with a single juicy caperberry, that delivered a sharp punch of mineral refreshment.
From the specials menu, the monkfish tempura was air-like in its lightness, with a batter so crisp that the tender monkfish could still robustly shine. It arrived with a moreish chilli aïoli, tropical and tart. We had high hopes for the butterfly langoustines as the star turn, and with two at £19.50 I expected more from their delicate frames, but we couldn’t fault the finish – the darkly farmyard-esque tang of the brown meat was offset with white meat so sweet and supple that it was almost liquefied, melting in a peppered, herby butter dripping.
The carne (meat) section was equally compelling – the delicate pig’s head croquettes and the slow-cooked rabo de toro in a rich oxtail jus took us past the point of satisfaction. Yet the mussels ‘a la Bilbaina’ proved the standout sensation – tender shellfish swollen with a tomato, sage, garlic and shallot broth. This was a flavour hit in full technicolour.
The dessert of fragrant honey and saffron ice cream was a real decadence, so dense and pigment-rich – an arresting end note.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Sabor is a careful curation of hearty regional Spanish home cooking, though there’s an unsettled feel to the space that might relax in time – lights need to be lowered, music needs to feel more native and present. Though its tourist-trap location may prove a challenge, Sabor’s culinary creativity hits the spot if you’re seeking revelations and surprises.