José Pizarro at the RA review: tasty tapas in stunning surroundings
Explore the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, followed by a slap-up Spanish lunch
Looking for the perfect Saturday or Sunday plan? This is it: ambling around the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition followed by a slap-up Spanish lunch at José Pizarro’s new restaurant, which is found upstairs in the RA’s magnificent Senate Room.
Give yourself at least an hour and a half to explore the temporary Summer Exhibition, where the works of leading artists and household names are presented alongside new and emerging talent.
Most of the art is available to buy, with price tags ranging from £200 to £20,000+ (orange stickers adorning the adjacent museum labels inform you if that particular work has been sold).
My highlights included “Felt Food” – a collection of austerity-themed household staples (including “Baked Boris” and “Marcus” Marmite) embroidered by the under-the-radar artist Sliz Gillard – and a selection of post-Impressionist, window-scene paintings by Anthony Eyton, an established “Royal Academician”.
Only a handful of the 1,300 pieces being exhibited explicitly referenced the pandemic, but many were political and provocative – which felt appropriate for a year like 2021. I was particularly struck by an artistic rendering of the now-iconic Reuters photograph of a black man lifting an injured white counter-protester to safety during a Black Lives Matter protest in London in June 2020.
Don’t let the misleading name of this exhibition make you feel pressed for time – it’s open all week (bar Mondays) until 2 January. Weekend tickets are £20 (or £22 with a donation), with proceeds supporting both the exhibiting artists and the RA’s wider charitable activities. A little tip: the Summer Exhibition had fully sold out the day I visited, but I was still able to purchase three last-minute tickets at the box office (insert winking emoji here).
On the other side of the building, overlooking Burlington Gardens, is Spanish chef José Pizarro’s light, airy and high-ceilinged restaurant. The drool-worthy menu features colourful dishes like strawberry gazpacho, hake in salsa verde and black ink croquetas, and is separated into two sections: cold tapas and hot tapas. For two people, our waitress recommended picking roughly three from each.
Sushi fans will adore the fleshy blood-red sea trout from the cold tapas section, which is served sashimi-style with radish and watercress, and was adorned with hot pink salmon roe which exploded like popping candy in our mouths.
From the hot tapas side, the “Gambas al ajillo” (wild white prawns, which had their shells removed except for their heads, and were served in a buttery garlic-chilli sauce) were extraordinary – I could have gone for another portion, or two. The confit leeks in brown butter, presented with a salty Catalina Reserva anchovy and edible violet flowers, was the perfect sweet-yet-savoury combination.
Less nice, but by no means bad, was the tomato salad, which had a creamy salmorejo (gazpacho-like) dressing, and was sprinkled with briney black olives. The gordal olives stuffed with orange were not to my taste, but my dining companion couldn’t get enough of them.
Our mains were washed down with a stunning gin cocktail made with the Spanish aperitif Nordés, Galician albariño and premium tonic water, introduced by the restaurant to mark Dia de la Hispanidad (Spain’s national day on 12 October). As well as cocktails, there’s a comprehensive wine menu to choose from.
For dessert we shared the “tarta de queso Vasca” – a cheesecake that actually tasted like cheese, served with beautifully sweet pieces of peach – and a chocolate pot with salt and olive oil. Extracting the hardened chocolate from its shallow container required a bit more effort than either of us had anticipated (a small drill would have been handy) but its bitter, savoury notes were perfect for two guests without particularly sweet tooths (teeths?).
Walking out of the RA later that day, having got my fill of booze, tapas and culture, I felt almost emotional. After so many lockdown weekends where walks, TV and Deliveroo were the highlights, I no longer take days like this one for granted.
José Pizarro at the Royal Academy of Arts, 6 Burlington Gardens, London, W1S 3ET; josepizarro.com