In some cases, two restaurants in the same street would be overkill. In some cases, it would be showing off. And in the case of Jose Pizarro, it’s relief. Relief that, if you can’t get into the original site – the smaller, bustling, oh-so Spanish José – then at least you’ve got a shot at getting your croqueta fix at the much larger Pizarro further up Bermondsey Street.
Or, indeed, possibly not, given the hordes that descended on our visit one Tuesday evening. To the observant, staff were being stretched to their multitasking extremes – the man who greeted us, and later happily dissected the glasses we enjoyed as part of the restaurant’s Sherry Week promotion, ended up at the edge of the kitchen carving Ibérico in addition to his other tasks. To the less observant, however, or those understandably blinded by the food or, one hopes, their companion’s company, they wouldn’t have noticed a thing. They may have been stretched – like all hospitality places at this juncture, thank you Brexit – but they remained charming and efficient. Then again if the staff meal was half as good as the food we happily devoured, their happiness is very easy to understand. I’d be considerably less grumpy if I got to eat food this good on a daily basis. What do you mean, you thought I already did? Cheeky bugger.
I have a lot of time for José. I’ve met him a few times and he’s always been utterly charming, the sort of man who’ll interrupt his lunch and come out and say hello, and give you a hug, just because you’re wandering past. Or, indeed, pull a couple of strings and get you tickets to the Hockney exhibition when you pop into the new(ish) Royal Academy restaurant for lunch. He’s just good people. However, even with that bias in mind, and considering that José wasn’t in the Pizarro kitchen the night we went, stone me if this wasn’t the best meal I’ve had at one of his places. Seriously. I mean, it’s always a menu that doesn’t put a foot wrong but, from croquetas to Tarta de Santiago de Peter, this was a pretty damn faultless meal.
As mentioned above, the initial reason to visit had been to look at Sherry Week, which is worth looking out for next November, assuming it’s repeated. That offer was for a plate of Cinco Jotas Jamón Ibérico – the food of the, er, pig-eating gods – plus a flight of sherries: a Fino, an Oloroso and José’s own Palo Cortado. And all for £17.
Of course, once nestled in, those sherries and THAT ham making our eyes roll back in our skulls – that combination is perfection, pure, simple perfection – the chances of us leaving were nil. Not before a little graze through the croquetas, the Padrón peppers, and the Buñuelos de bacalao (salt cod fritters) at any rate. The former are a marvel, a centre of near liquid bechamel somehow contained by the most delicate of crispy casings, but it was the latter that most impressed. There’s a very dirty, streetfood-y take on a fishfinger sandwich waiting to happen there, let me tell you.
And, of course, with those dishes consumed, the chances of getting out without a little further exploration of the menu was also impossible. Zanahorias y requesón – charred carrots, fresh cheese, whey dressing, bread crumble – were a delight, ditto Almeja con mojo rojo, clams in spicy sauce with coriander. As for the Presa ibérica (those Cinco Jotas / 5J people again)… It’s a dish I’ve had several times. Indeed, it’s a dish I’ve had cooked for me in the Dehesa, the home of Jamón, by chefs from Jose’s former employers, Brindisa. That was impeccable. This was better. With a handful of patatas to soak up the juices, and a side of grilled, sweet, slightly piquant red peppers? You would not want to step between my fork and that plate, that’s all I say on the matter.
We picked at the aforementioned Tarta, which was great, but perhaps a dish too far in the circumstances. That we left some was a reflection on our greed, not the baking. There were wines – there’s a fine, well priced by-the-glass selection here of both whites and reds – but revelry and dining pleasure overpowered my note-taking. Trust me though, ask them and you’ll get some lovely non-spendy pairings.
Pizarro, and all of José’s restaurants, of course, were always dependably lovely places to eat. On this evidence, however, they’ve given themselves an unnecessary but exceptionally welcome upgrade. Colour me impressed.
194 Bermondsey Street