José Pizarro at the Royal Academy – or JP at the RA as its friends call it, so I will – is housed in the Senate Room. First impressions are, well, impressive: impossibly huge windows which flood the room with light, an ornate ceiling in dusky pink and gold and an elegant bar running the considerable length of the room.
Despite the grandeur, the room has a lovely ambience and is immediately relaxing: simple yet supremely comfortable seating and unobtrusive music, allowing that natural restaurant soundtrack of laughter, chatter and the clinking of glasses and cutlery to predominate. Despite being famously championed by St John, I don’t think I fully appreciated the magic of this sound until indoor dining returned post-lockdown, when hearing it again brought a rush of gratitude and a literal tear to my eye.
Generally, the staff were friendly and attentive without being intrusively so. There were a few exceptions: one junior member of the team was a little confused about my wine order, although she may have been in training so that was completely forgivable (particularly in the current staffing climate); slightly less forgivable was one more senior, who delivered the wine in a dismissive manner with no eye contact, which jarred a little. However, Daniel, the utterly charming guardian of the front desk, made up for it all.
I don’t think Pizarro gets enough credit for getting this kind of thing right
The menu is divided into hot or cold tapas. I started as I always do, scanning for croquetas and pan con tomate. This is my first run at any tapas menu, because the pan con tomate usually arrives quickly and frankly I’ve never met a croqueta I didn’t like. These shoo-ins give me a chance to decide on my other dishes with an appropriate level of deliberation. I’ve been to both of Pizarro’s restaurants in Bermondsey and the croquetas are reliably fabulous, so I couldn’t fathom why there didn’t seem to be any on this menu.
Questioning the ever-helpful Daniel, it was all about health and safety. A condition of the restaurant operating within the museum space was that there would be no deep-frying – it’s too much of a fire risk (apparently, they can’t even allow candles on a birthday cake). He recommended a dish of oven-baked prawn fritters as the closest alternative to accompany the pan con tomate, which happily was on the menu and was trade mark Pizarro; neat rectangles of grilled bread topped with garlic, Catalan tomatoes and flaky salt. I don’t think Pizarro gets enough credit for getting this kind of thing right; true authenticity and attention to detail is what transports you, rather than tiding you over until dinnertime.
Looking for some refreshing brightness it was over to the cold tapas side of the menu and the Remojón Granadino. It arrived elegantly plated (this is Mayfair, darling), without the salt cod but with zingy blood orange, olives, soft-yolked quail’s eggs, a piquant vermouth vinaigrette and, lest you forget this is a tapas restaurant, a light but transformative dusting of smoky paprika.
I’d hoped to try the Kokotxas de Merluza al Pil Pil y Judías del Ganxet (hake with creamy white beans) which are so hyperlocal to a specific area in Cataluña that they have a European Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) like Parmesan. This dish sadly wasn’t available on my visit so instead I chose the Langostinos al Ajillo (white wild prawns with chilli and garlic oil) served peeled but head-on. The flavour profile of these was noticeably different to the fried version; softer but juicier, with a sauce puddle crying out for their fresh sourdough bread. In line with the site’s restrictions the prawns are oven baked and then finished in the sous vide and rested, where they absorb all that chilli/garlic goodness.
The same prawns are used to make the croquetas’ suggested understudy, Buñuelos de Gambas; plump, spicy prawn fritters with a heavenly chunky, chilli-spiked filling. These appeared in a generous portion of five, surrounding a swirl of punchy Catalan allioli with lemon. Much as I will always love that moment when a perfectly crisp croqueta shell cracks and yields to the creamy filling, these delicious fritters were my top pick from the menu. A plate of these, a seat at the bar and a chilled glass of something dry and aromatic; I can’t think of a better post-exhibition treat.
Speaking of drinks, the wine list is surprisingly good value considering the dramatic surroundings and the ritzy Mayfair postcode, with almost all options available by the glass. I tried the affordable and delicious Mo Salinas Blanco, a crisp Macabeo/Moscatel blend with light tropical notes from Alicante. This is available, as is their excellent olive oil, from Pizarro’s online shop.
José Pizarro has achieved something quite special here, balancing the smartness of Mayfair with the laid-back conviviality of tapas. Do I recommend you go? #yeswayjose.
6 Burlington Gardens
1st floor Senate Room
by Amanda David