Rupert Bates Winter 2021
First to London’s Fitzrovia. But let’s take a step back as to how I came to be here.
The hero of Taste of London in Regent’s Park last summer was the firepit, run by the brightest and best live-fire chefs in the business, fanning the flames, drawing the crowds and, amid the theatrics, serving meat from the town of Nirvana in the shire of Utopia.
On a section of the firepit were pans of paella so huge it was if a Valencian Gulliver had landed in Lilliput with a kitchen designed in Brobdingnag. This was Arros QD – paella and much more over wood fire, with legendary Spanish chef Quique Dacosta (QD) bringing his unique flavours and influences to London for the first time.
Arros QD in Eastcastle Street, London, opened in 2019, so, like the whole hospitality trade, was rocked on its heels by the pandemic.
Coincidentally, my restaurant booking was on World Paella Day. Ideally, I would have been somewhere on the Costa del Azahar, but this was the next best thing.
“Arros QD is the result of my lifelong passion for paella and wood-fired cooking. Everything revolves around the six-metre woodfire stove where our chefs weave their magic, with theatrical seating around the open kitchen downstairs and a classic dining experience on the upper floor,” says Quique Dacosta.
“Our space was conceived by Spanish interior designer Lázaro Rosa-Violán, with open fires and a glazed wine cellar providing a spectacular visual backdrop to experience the evolution of paella.
Our menu combines Mediterranean influences with locally sourced ingredients, accompanied by classic wines from around the world, as well as many undiscovered Spanish gems that you will find nowhere else in London.”
That’s some statement, but Dacosta delivers in spades – and grains. I get an education in paella, even before I’ve tasted it. For paella is not actually the dish; it’s the pan, with every rice in a paella dish at Arros QD true to the principles and authenticity of Valencian paella.
There are chargrilled baby gems with chilli garlic butter and sweetcorn skewers with soy butter glaze and feta cream from the soil menu. The sea gives up smoked Cornish mussels and Atlantic squid; the land provides charcoal Iberian presa (pork shoulder) and beef cheeks.
But it is the paella we must turn to and my choice is the paella Valencian – rabbit, chicken, garrofo beans and rosemary. I watched it being cooked a la llama – to the flame – and the result is an exquisite fusion of flavours and taste explosions; a touch of ancient and a twist of modern; one mouthful rural, the next urban as the pan combines city and country.
And the best bit? You get to scrape the pan without being told off by your mum. Actually, it really is the best bit, for the layer stuck to the bottom of the pan, charred and crunchy, is deliberate and arguably the best part of the paella. That crust is delicious and even has a name: socarrat.
Dacosta is a multi-garlanded chef in Spain, an innovator who never loses touch with his roots. His eponymous Quique Dacosta restaurante in Dénia, Alicante, has three Michelin Stars and now the rice man cometh to London.
I head east to Bank, and Temper City. I find the concept of a barbecue restaurant in the City intriguing, imagining lots of suits returning home after a long lunch reeking of smoke and trying to justify that eating a whole animal was for the greater good of the global banking community. Then I remembered nobody wears suits anymore and the list of long lunchers grows ever shorter, even if I remain on it.
Firstly, you don’t smell of smoke, but I think I may well have eaten a whole animal. I can’t remember the weight of the cuts of Dexter beef – the Special that day – I was served. I recall it was meant to be for two, but that never troubles my choice from the menu, especially as this lucky cow had had a lot to drink, fed beer to produce tender and buttery meat. Complex too, in a good way. I guess, like with humans, the alcohol relaxes muscle and I am told the cattle love it. All of Temper’s meat is from slow grown, pasture raised, rare-breed British cattle, or you could opt for a wood-roasted sea bass with Gochujang Korean butter.
Temper, which also has sister London restaurants in Soho and Covent Garden, was created by Neil Rankin, a true pioneer and champion of live-fire cooking, barbecued meat and open kitchens, so we all get to see the flames, rather than hiding the theatre behind the curtain. Barbecoa, Pitt Cue and Smokehouse are all on Rankins’s resume – fire food a constant.
The fire pit is very much the hero of Temper City as I do weight training ahead of my meal arriving. There is a stylish butcher vibe to the restaurant – indeed butchery masterclasses are available – albeit not many butchers have big, bold wine lists and a smoky, throaty cocktail menu – think corn whiskey with toffee popcorn, rum with beetroot and bourbon with lemon curd.
I vow, once I need to eat anything again in a fortnight or so, to try the bottomless barbecue brunch on a Saturday, including Ají Panca beef skewers and flatbread. There are bottomless drinks too. Temper – as in tempering meat – yes. Temperance? Less so.
This wasn’t meant to happen. Don’t get me wrong, I was meant to be in Dubrovnik, but had vowed not to take a busman’s, or maybe fireman’s, holiday, or, to mix metaphors, carry charcoals to Croatia. It was time to step away from the food flames for a few days holiday. As far as my son was concerned, we were simply going in search of Luka Modrić.
I blame it on the chairlift and the sheer beauty of this Croatian town on the Adriatic. I wanted a panoramic view, but the walk up Mount Srđ above the walled city was too much of a hike. Once at the top, I spied amid the pine-covered trails a sign that read ‘Konoba Dubrava local cuisine’. The siren call images spelled rustic and authentic and there was food and flames – lots of flames. And just a short walk away to the village of Bosanka.
It pays to be lazy. Head back to the old town, take in a few Game of Thrones location sites and then a cab back up and just to be safe I’d better book. Just as well. This is not only hidden away from the tourist beat in the mountains, you can’t just drop in, request a table and, being adventurous, culturally arrogant and British, ask for something ‘typically Croatian’ having done no research into the country’s culinary heritage whatsoever.
‘Goods from the farmers’ market, hand-picked groceries from the nearby villages, homemade bread, fresh air and the sound of nature’ reads the website. Then the asterisk: ‘*Please note it takes at least three hours to prepare meals under the iron bell, so we kindly ask you to order in advance.’
Under the iron bell? We decided not to cheat and find out exactly what that meant, but ringing the restaurant we were asked simply if we wanted lamb, pork, veal or octopus? We went pork and octopus.
Dishes under the iron bell are known as Dalmatian Peka and the meat is – wait for it – cooked under an iron bell.
It is the oldest form of food preparation in the Adriatic, especially in rural villages. It is simply a blend of meat or octopus and vegetables made in a pot and put into the embers of the fire and baked. Heavenly and earthy doesn’t even begin to cut it or move it, but if the octopus had been on the field in the 2018 World Cup final in Moscow, Croatia would never have lost to France.
The only variants on the menu? Lamb on a spit and suckling pig on a spit. You get the picture. There are grilled vegetables and salads in the small print, while I can thoroughly recommend a bottle of the Zlatan Plavac Grand Select red wine from the Croatian island of Hvar, with the Plenković family wine cellars built under the sea.
The meal over, it was time to check out the kitchen and this was a live-fire experience like no other. Armed with a limp joke about whether Quasimodo worked under the bell, I was instead met by the super-cool (I don’t know how), talented chef Marino Baruncic.
The restaurant itself is all stone, wooden beams and terracotta tiles, but then you head out the back. There is hell’s kitchen and then there is Lucifer’s pantry. You are immediately hypnotised by the fire and the ash, as you take a ringside seat beside a scale model volcano. Marino smiles and flicks through BBQ magazine saying “you need a Dalmatian Peka recipe in here” while I wilt in the furnace.
With Marino dressed all in black (doesn’t that make it even hotter?) like a young abbot, you wonder if you are in a sinister medieval monastery where something bad is about to happen. But something good, very good, has happened – another example of the stunning, eclectic mix of live-fire food, culture and theatre from around the world. I heard the chimes of midnight under the bell; it was time to head home. Luka Modrić would have to wait.
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