Ibérica Marylebone restaurant review: elevated Spanish classics
Whether it’s pho or tacos, bao or tapas, haute street food poses a quandary. It’s gastronomic Pygmalion: can you coax a cuisine from a bustling hole-in-the-wall onto a reduction-drizzled plate in a hushed, low-lit corner of Marylebone without people saying it’s a fraud? Can you put a posh enough frock on some down-home fare to justify per-dish tapas prices that would bankroll an entire street party in Madrid and do so without people balking? Ibérica has spent the last decade grappling with these questions.
They’ve laid a solid foundation for success: executive chef Nacho Manzano’s upmarket tapas are built around ingredients of a quality you’d be hard pushed to find on the average Spanish street corner. And while tapas menus on the peninsula tend to be very local, Ibérica’s has a sprinkling of dishes from all over Spain, so you can cover a lot of culinary ground in a night. This year they’re complementing that pan-Iberian selection by focusing on a different region of the country for a month or two. In May, it’s Castilla La Mancha; they’ll be moving to Galicia in June and July.
Sometimes the stellar ingredients Ibérica sources are allowed to speak for themselves. Sometimes they’re organized into thoughtful conversations. And just occasionally, too many show up for the party and it turns into a shouting match. With that in mind, set aside half your order for Ibérica’s simplest pleasures, like five slim wedges of different artisanal Manchego cheeses (£12) scattered with salted almonds and cubes of grainy quince preserve. Or the acorn-fed jamón ibérico (£18–£22), two legs of which adorn the marble-topped counter running between the different halves of the dining area. They shrink as the evening wears on and board after board of translucent, ruby-dark slices are shaved off them.
And then there’s the olive oil: fruity and peppery, it comes with dunking bread (£3), but you’d secretly rather it were served in one of Ibérica’s little glass porrones so that you could angle a stream of it straight into your mouth. If you can overcome that urge, the selection of Spanish wines that go in those pointy-nosed carafes is excellent: we had a robust red from Finca La Estacada in La Mancha and a lighter Grenache-Syrah blend from Priorat (the carafes mean you can each have half a bottle of what you like).
The poised Spanish waitstaff rave about the best-selling croquetas (£13) with endearing enthusiasm (they’re based on Manzano’s grandma’s recipe), but you’d do well to politely pass them up. Croquetas are the Spanish culinary equivalent of breaded camembert and though Ibérica’s are probably as good as deep-fried béchamel gets, they take up valuable gastric real estate that would be more wisely spent elsewhere. Consider the twice-cooked lamb (£11) – its not-quite-fatty weight is perfectly countered by a tangy cherry tomato sauce and marinated peppers. It went well with one of this month’s Castilian specials, a citrusy cold lentil salad with partridge and cêpes.
Inevitably, Ibérica is sometimes guilty of gilding the lily – or truffle-oiling the asparagus and Manchego, as the case may be. But mostly it manages to strike the right balance between classic and classy. Nothing exemplifies this better than its take on pulpo a la gallega (£14), a Galician classic made with octopus from the Cantabrian sea. By all means go the full socialist with the other tapas, but you’ll want your own order of this: one small potato boiled to peak potatoeyness but not a second more, lightly squashed and covered in a smoky, garlicky, gloopy paprika sauce, topped by the provocative russet flourish of a single curling tentacle. Crisp, barely charred suckers give way to a shiny yielding centre without so much as a hint of rubberiness.
“You really should”, said the attentive maître d’ when we looked alarmed by the prospect of pudding. He was right. Another waiter described this month’s special, natillas (£6.50), through narrowed eyes in a tone that was frankly lascivious. It turned out to be spot-on: the first spoonful of glossy custard revealed a hidden lake of saffron-infused syrup which combined with twists of lemon zest into something very Moorish. The natillas came with a confusing dollop of chocolate ice-cream on the top (“‘in Swedish we call this ‘cake on cake’,’” my dinner partner noted). You could suggest they leave it in the kitchen for better purposes.
So yes, sometimes Ibérica puts too posh a frock on its flower girl in an attempt to pass her off as a princess. But parse the menu wisely, and the experiment in elevating simple Spanish classics is entirely successful.
Ibérica, 195 Great Portland St, W1W 5PS, ibericarestaurants.com