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When chef Nieves Barragán Mohacho first arrived in London almost 20 years ago from the small town of Santurtzi in the Basque Country, speaking no English, Spanish food in the UK capital was virtually non-existent, she says. There was one “horrendous” restaurant in Soho, but there simply wasn’t the demand. She barely heard any Spanish being spoken on the street and when she did eventually start working at a Spanish restaurant, they had to get their ingredients from a man who would travel up from Spain every week, his van overflowing with suckling pig, lamb, vinegar and olive oil.
Now of course, London is a very different place gastronomically and Barragán Mohacho can take great credit for that. First at Fino and then Barrafina, where she won a Michelin star, Barragán Mohacho and hispanohile restaurateurs the Hart brothers helped popularise tapas in the capital and the idea of counter-top eating around an open kitchen, which she says was a push back against the “small, hot, macho” kitchens she was used to. No reservations? Yeah, they pretty much started that too.
The tapas bar; Black Tomato, Confit Artichoke and Txistorra
Now Barragán Mohacho is looking to shake up the London dining scene again, at her own restaurant, Sabor, meaning ‘flavour’ in Spanish, which we highlighted as one of our hottest restaurant openings of 2018. Having broken away from the Hart brothers, a decision, she says with a lump in her throat, was like ending a love affair, she has set up with Barrafina Group General Manager José Etura, with backing from JKS Restaurants (Trishna, Gymkhana, Lyle's, Bao).
Sabor is spread across two floors, separated by a “beautiful” iron staircase, with an Andalucían-style tapas bar on the ground floor and an asador upstairs, with large sharing tables, the only part of the restaurant that can be booked. Sabor offers a culinary road map of Spain, following how Barragán Mohacho and Etura like to eat on their return trips there, from the suckling pig and lamb of the later's home region of Castile and central Spain, to Galician octopus, to any number of dishes from Andalucía, up to Catalonia and the Basque Country. “As soon as you walk in you feel like you’re in Spain and that makes Jose and I so proud,” she says.
Lamb; the asador
Barragán Mohacho first learned about cooking as a child with her mother, who was a carer for her disabled grandmother at the time – “The first thing she did in the morning was thrown on an apron,” she says. Her mother let her do “non-dangerous things in the kitchen” like peeling broad beans and peas and she began to taste and get an idea of how flavour worked, but she wasn’t sure if she ever wanted to become a chef, it just kind of happened when she came to London – starting with a stint at chef Nico Ladenis’ Simply Nico, where she learnt a great deal from the French chefs in the hot, small, macho kitchen. “I loved food and I loved eating, but I never thought it was going to be my career,” she says. ‘I came to London, because I wanted to do something different, maybe learn a different cuisine for a year and then realise if I wanted to be a chef or maybe travel around the world … 20 years later I’m still here. That’s how enthusiastic I became about food.”
Santurtzi's loss is London’s gain.
All photos: Chris Terry