Not your average Sunday lunch: chaotic and exciting counter dining just off Regent Street – 8/10
As an admittedly average cook who once worked in a restaurant but now barely finds time to scrape together beans on toast twice a year, I love the idea of counter dining. If I’m not going to cook a meal myself, watching someone else do it in front of me is pretty much the next best thing. Fortunately, there is now an almost endless list of places to do this in London: Bocca Di Lupo, Barrafina, Bancone (reviewed here), The Barbary (and that’s just at the start of the alphabet).
However, if you think dining at The Counter at Sabor is going to be a relaxing experience, where a couple of chefs calmly glide around the kitchen and dishes quietly appear with minimal fuss, you are wrong. This is Spanish cooking at its most furious and exciting. Almost from the moment we sit down, the kitchen erupts into a flurry of activity, verging on chaos. The dishes come thick and fast, seemingly in random order. A poor pot of romesco sauce ends up splattered on the floor. A serving spoon goes flying across the counter towards my neighbour, who barely bats an eyelid. It’s all great fun, but I can’t help but feel nervous watching the chefs navigate the carousel of bodies, open flames and razor-sharp knives. Fortunately, the result of all this commotion and hubbub is some rather delicious food.
Our first dish is straight off the specials board: slivers of Delica pumpkin, delicately breaded and deep-fried. The waitress scribbling down our order on the marble countertop promises that these are extremely sweet, but they have not been fully fried to caramelisation and are a little bland. As always, a good slathering of alioli saves the day.
A half-slice of bread for the pan tomate is quickly toasted over the charcoal grill before being loaded up with a sweet layer of diced tomatoes and thin slices of cherry-coloured cecina – a kind of dried beef leg typically from the Léon region. It’s lightly salted, surprisingly juicy and just firm enough to make a good bite before the tomatoes underneath burst through. I’d always thought the pan tomate at Ibérica (for all its other faults) was pretty special, but Sabor blows it out of the water.
Calçots – essentially gigantic spring onions – are a Catalan specialty during Lent, so much so that there is even a specific word for a gathering of friends or family just to eat them: a calçotada. Usually they are grilled over a fire before being peeled and dipped in romesco sauce – a mix of roasted red peppers, garlic, nuts and olive oil. For the curious among you, there is a step-by-step guide showing the messy (and kind of sexual) method for eating them here.
At Sabor, they are served in the typical Catalan style on a bed of romesco, but also scattered with hazelnuts and a kind of herby soft cheese that I forget the name of. The combination of buttery charred onions, slightly bitter romesco and toasted nuts, all slathered in garlicky cream cheese is intoxicating. We devour the lot and seriously debate ordering a second portion immediately.
The arroz negro is similarly moreish – a compact sea of inky rice, topped with floating squid pieces and flecked with scarlet slices of chilli. It comes with a fat dollop of alioli, which marbles its way between the grains. As always with squid ink, we are left with jet black teeth and tongues but quickly wash it away with a light glass of Pittacum Bierzo 2012.
In contrast, a herb-crusted rabbit shoulder is light and fresh, served with a citrusy side salad. It’s a little bit of a mission to pick all of the meat off the bones, but well worth the effort. Bits of gamey bunny are perfect with a dab of that romesco sauce.
Presa Ibérica is a relatively rare cut of pork from between the shoulder blades and the loin of the animal. Apparently, the “5 Jotas” attributed to the meat simply confirms it has received the maximum five-star rating. I’ve never heard of it before, but it is becoming increasingly popular among Spanish chefs because of its tender flavour and simplicity of cooking.
The fires of Sabor are the perfect place to cook it – seared on the outside and beautifully pink on the inside to preserve its gorgeous juices. It comes with a couple of ribbon-like parsnip chips on top (think fancy Tyrrell’s) and a bed of mojo verde – a punchy sauce made predominantly of coriander, garlic and cumin, which surprisingly complements rather than crushes the delicate flavour of the pork.
We are suckered in by the tantalising promise of the suckling pig empanadilla, another from the specials board. Sadly it is forgotten about until the end of our lunch, but we both agree it is nothing to write home about. The pastry is buttery but disappointingly limp. Next time we want suckling pig, we will head straight up the spiral staircase to El Asador, which serves it whole, halved or quartered straight from the eponymous wood-fired oven, depending on how piggish you are feeling.
Our final dish is a gorgeous golden orb of honey and saffron ice cream on a bed of chocolatey crumble. I worked in a gelateria for about two years but this flavour is new to me! Delicate, floral and fresh, with a mouth-cleansing swirl from the mint leaf stuck to the side – it’s bliss.
Surprisingly for us, we took it easy on the booze at Sabor. Our lunch cost us £128, including four glasses of wine from the short list concealed underneath the counter. Considering the cost of many of London’s Sunday roasts nowadays, you will have a hard time convincing me not to come back.
My lunch companion is lucky enough to work at Hedonism Wines – the Mayfair wine temple that caters for many of London’s richest and most dedicated oenophiles. After lunch, we wander past their pop-up café in Burlington Arcade, Hideaway, and then over to Hedonism, where we disappear off into the basement and spend the rest of the afternoon happily drinking our way through the enomatics and listening to their vinyl copies of Jethro Tull and Steely Dan.
A Moveable Feast