Nieves Barragán Mohacho is the Spanish chef who was the culinary force behind the Michelin-starred Barrafina. She left a year ago to set up her own place with Barrafina’s former manager, José Etura, and they have now opened a site in Heddon Street, just off Regent Street, helped along by the financial backing of JKS Restaurants (who own Lyle’s, Bao, Gymkhana and more besides).
Compared to Barrafina – though not all three branches of Barrafina – Sabor seems huge, occupying two high-ceilinged and airy floors. The ground floor, simply referred to as Sabor, is a no-bookings bar and seated tapas counter, complete with a seafood bar. But the first floor dining room adds something quite new.
The upstairs asador (meaning “roasting spit”) room is dominated by hefty, wooden shared tables. These are best suited to larger groups of people. Be warned that if you want a private conversation, this is not the place to do it; our waiter tried to awkwardly shoehorn us into facing gaps between disgruntled diners, who were no more keen to rub thighs with us than we were with them. So, our waitress relented and let us perch in greater privacy at window seats instead.
The Asador is really somewhere you need to come with a group to take over the entire table. This is the place to share a roasted Segovian suckling pig from a wood-fired oven, or try specialities from Galicia, or Castile & Léon (regions in north-west Spain, not far from where chef Mohacho hails from) cooked in big copper pans. The menu’s printed (with little in the way of English translation), but also artfully written on a blackboard above the kitchen station.
If you’re not up for, say, spending £190 on a whole roast suckling pig, you can still assemble a meal from the starters and sides. A highlight was the crisp pig’s ears, baked but meltingly tender with flavoursome fat; a quince mayonnaise and dusting of cayenne pepper. Some chew was provided by gealtinous cartilage, but being piglets, the ears were soft, a few hairs still visible. You can find similar recipe in the chef’s excellent book that is also called Sabor.
Morcilla de Burgos & Txistorra might sound like something practised by the Spanish Inquisition on unbelievers, but was simply black pudding made with rice and delicately cumin-flavoured, served with piquillo pepper and paprika-coloured pork sausage from the Basque region. This is more an assembly of bought ingredients (for which they charge £7) than restaurant cooking, but enjoyable nonetheless.
Next were the cachelos, which was a tapas-sized portion of new potatoes cooked in octopus water (£4.50). By this stage, I was thinking of setting up a baked potato stall outside, selling whole baked potatoes, with fillings, at half the price and I’d still be able to undercut the restaurant yet make a tidy profit. However, as boiled potatoes go, they were nice enough.
It’s an unfortunate fact that some of the tastiest dishes are not the most photogenic. And so it is with the empanada Gallega, not shown here, which is a two-crusted savoury pie from Galicia. This version was filled with slwo-cooked cuttlefish and its cleaned guts and ink, and had a rich, earthy flavour despite the marine provenance; we could have eaten a second portion.
Setas y gambas – mushrooms with prawns – owed most if its flavour to the fried mushrooms, though the dressing of diced shallot, olive oil and herbs helped.
Everything on the list of desserts is tempting, but mostly light, which is just the way it would be if you’ve just feasted on pork.
Honey saffron ice cream was dominated by the honey flavour, though the saffron was discernable.
Blood orange is conveniently in season right now, though for blood orange sorbet many chefs in London buy the juice frozen and in bulk, then make the sorbet. This version was exemplary, the crystals even and smooth.
This was hit-and-miss, as is so often the way with new restaurants. I’ve met chef Mohachon on several occasions, as a regular customer in her restaurants, and I’ve found her charming; her approach to service seems to rub off on the staff. The waiting staff were perhaps a little too keen to wedge us into an already overcrowded table, and also to “explain the concept” to customers who simply wanted to be left alone to choose their own dishes; but these two minor glitches apart, we left with a warm feeling about the restaurant.
This is one of the hottest restaurants of 2018, and also the place to be if you’re a Spanish food enthusiast. Arrive at lunch, or very early for dinner to avoid a long wait for the ground-floor tapas bar. Upstairs is a very different and more expensive proposition; with family-style shared tables, it’s better to book as a larger group, and be prepared to be sociable with your neighbours.
Tue-Sat 12-2.30pm, 5.30-10.30pm; Sun 1-6pm
Three course dinner for two with wine at Asador: around £140
35-37 Heddon Street, W1B 4BR; +44 (0)20 3319 8130; saborrestaurants.co.uk