Rachel Seed, a West Londoner through and through, jumps on the Jubilee Line and finds herself transported to Ibérica, a truly authentic Spanish restaurant at the foot of Canary Wharf’s soaring ’scrapers – a welcome addition to the Island’s growing restaurant scene.
I love Canary Wharf. Head-over-heels, quickening heart beat, sort of love. The architecture inspires me, the buzz excites me, the water soothes me and the people fascinate me. I remember the first time I drove through the Wharf. Actually, I was being driven, in the summer, in a convertible, some 10 years ago and I remember looking skyward in awe. I felt as though I had been transported to another time and place. The future. In a US metropolis. I half expected to spot Superman flying between the skyscrapers. Then I went to Waitrose. The biggest, shiniest, most luxurious Waitrose in the land. I was hooked. There wasn’t much else there at the time but I loved it nevertheless and it was the start of an
ongoing, dizzying love affair.
So imagine how my love has deepened now that the area is home to even more vertiginous feats of architecture, a shopping centre that caters to your every materialistic need, a variety of cultural events and attractions, and an ever-expanding range of quality eateries. Newest to the scene, and the protagonist of my story, is Ibérica. I was immediately won over by the heavily-accented greeting from the charming maître-d’, whose warmth and charm was a template for all the staff. Everything about the place screams “Spain”. Authentically – not in a bullfighting, Viva España kind of way. More like, as my dining companion put it, “It feels like we’ve stumbled across a well established, old-school Madrid tapas bar with a hot, young chef at the stove.” All the staff are Spanish and whilst they speak faultless English, there is the odd, charming, tell-tale slip up. When I asked how long the restaurant had been open, I was told “since half-November”. The chefs are Spanish and are all from executive chef Nacho Manzano’s two Michelin star restaurant, Casa Marcial,in Asturias, Northern Spain. César García is the chef manning the stoves and overseeing the kitchen’s day-to-day running. (He claimed in a recent interview to not be chasing stars, but if he carries on like this, they’ll come looking for him). The interiors are designed by Barcelona based company Contemporain Studios. The modernity of the cavernous interior is softened by an almost retro Spanish look, with tiled floors, faux shutters and huge vintage theatre posters adorning the double-height walls. Spanish wines are visible everywhere (on the walls, in the glass-fronted bodega, up the stairs, behind the bar) and range from the legendary (the Ribera del Duero region’s infamous Pingus) to the reliable everyday drinkers (Beronia from Spain’s best known wine region, Rioja) and many in between. We were introduced to one of the lesser-known grape growing regions – Priorat, which lies in the south-west of Catalonia. We tried a glass (a bargain at £9.50) of Formiga de Vellut. The blend of granache, Carinena and Syrah grapes came together in a rich, velvety, smooth wine, full of berries and showcasing the very best in Spanish winemaking. An essence of the very best of Spanish wine in a singular glass. We ordered another glass each.
I should mention that I was brought up in Spain, so I know my Spanish food and wine better than most, and my expectations were high. We began with a trio of Ibérico hams, accompanied with one of my great Spanish food loves: the humble tomato bread. The Jamóns represented a journey from the centre to the south of the country and from mild and sweet, to intense and savoury. All boasted that wonderful, mouth-coating, sweetly melting fat that is the signature of these hams. There is no other time that I would actively chose to eat a piece of fat. But this is a pleasure that cannot be missed. Savour the unique flavour and the way it coats the mouth, before cutting through it with a sip of super-dry fino sherry. Perfection on a slab of slate. Gazpacho with red berries,beetroot and anchovies tasted nothing like you’d expect and everything you’d hope. Slightly tart from the berries, earthy from the beetroot and salty from the anchovies, it was cleansing and refreshing and an early sign of the inventiveness and skill of things to come. Croquetas – usually more my dining companion’s cup of tea than mine – won me over with their creamy, cheesy centre and little shards of ham. This is clever cooking: old Spanish meets the new, groundbreaking Spanish cooking. Torto with caramelised onions, eggs and Cabralos cheese was an unexpected treat. The humble fried corn “torto” is a speciality of the Asturias region, eaten instead of bread in many households and topped with various delights – or whatever is to hand. In this case the delight was creamy scrambled eggs mixed with sweet onion and rich cheese. Comforting and delicious, we practically licked the plate clean.
Caramelised, tender scallops melted in the mouth and a ‘sailor stew’ of plump, juicy clams swimming in a rich sauce were a seafood lover’s dream. Being an unashamed carnivore, the cute tapas-size Ibérican pork loin burgers with little pickled peppers and a honey mustard sauce were devoured in seconds, leaving us wishing they’d arrived full size. Black rice arrived dotted with cuttlefish and prawns and served with a rich and pungent alioli. Delicious hunks of seafood punctuated every mouthful and the intensity of the squid ink left our lips darkly stained.
Our savoury taste buds fully satisfied, we were ready to move onto the sweet stuff. And it doesn’t come much sweeter than Tocinillo. One of Spain’s most iconic desserts, it came about in the early part of the last century when the Jerez wineries donated leftover egg yolks (they used the whites to clarify the sherry) to the local nuns, who, with the addition of nothing more than a bit of sugar, turned them into this heavenly dessert. The Tocinillo at Ibérica is served with yoghurt ice-cream, which magically cuts through the sweetness, while a biscuity crumble lends a welcome textural element to the dish. Like all the food we’d tasted, it was well though out, inventive and skilful cooking that stays true to its roots – but that isn’t afraid of modernity and progress.
The walk back to Canary Wharf tube under the canopy of skyscrapers reenforced my love affair and now I have even more of a reason to venture east. My slightly drunkenly uttered “hasta luego” (see you soon) to the maître-d’ was greeted with a squeal of delight. I meant it. See you soon, Ibérica.
12 Cabot Square, E14 4QQ
0207 636 8650