A couple of weeks ago, I escaped the hustle and bustle of Covent Garden for a brief but deliciously enlightening adventure into Spanish and Mexican cuisine. Condesa is a little wine and tapas bar, tucked away amidst other more imposing pubs and chain restaurants in this ever-heaving district of London. Blink and you'd miss it, so make sure you keep your eyes wide open as you walk past, because it would be a sad thing if you did miss out on the delights Condesa has to offer (not least of which is Daniel, the rather charming owner).
I was expecting a large restaurant, so was surprised to find myself in a small and rustic-looking wine bar. You can perch at the bar on stools and read off the menu and wine list written on a large blackboard across the wall, or sit at small tables dotted along the side of the room. The place definitely has atmosphere for being so small; everyone around us seemed to be having a great time, and there's a really laid-back feel to everything. It's a proper Spanish tapas bar, not an English restaurant attempting to take some of those elements and enlarge and commercialise them. This is evident from the extensive list of wines written on the board, from Argentina, Chile, Spain, Mexico and France; it's obvious that the food and wine are of equal importance at Condesa.
It's a bit of a treat for wine lovers, particularly with Daniel's expert knowledge to recommend wines to match the food. We started with an Amontillado sherry, which with its sweet, honeyed tones was the prefect thing to whet the appetite before the food commenced. We also sampled a range of Mexican wines, which I found very intriguing, having never tasted wine from that part of the world before. A sweet but crisp and refreshing Chenin Blanc, Daniel explained, gains its sweetness from the salty sea breeze that perfumes the grapes, lending them a distinctly honeyed aftertaste.
Condesa offers big, bold, vibrant food, yet also food that demonstrates a huge amount of skill and care in the blending of flavours and textures. The specials board changes every two days, and ingredients are carefully sourced from Mexico, Spain and local suppliers, with emphasis on quality and authenticity. There's a separate lunch and dinner menu, the former featuring bocadillos (home-made sandwiches), with fillings such as pulled pork, chicken chipotle, jamon serrano with olive oil, and goat's cheese with cranberry sauce, all costing around £5-6. The latter showcases a range of Spanish and Mexican classics, such as charcuterie, ceviche, tostadas and quesadillas.
If you're looking for fancy, artistically-presented restaurant food, with foams and garnishes and the like, go somewhere else. This is the kind of food I really love to eat, the kind that makes me fail to see the point in Michelin-starred places: it's hearty, generous, but also perfectly balanced to deliver a really exciting taste experience. There's meat and cheese. Toasted bread. Olives. Chilli. Beautiful fresh fish and seafood. I really cannot think of what more a person could want.
My favourite dish was the pork pibil sliders, beautiful soft buns filled with slow-cooked pork shoulder that had been marinated in anatto seeds, orange, lime and grapefruit, lending the meat an incredibly rich, salty, tangy flavour. It was served with a tomatillo dip, which was an amazing blend of spicy and cooling at the same time - ice cold yet tingly on the tongue, the perfect zingy complement to the rich meat.
Another favourite, and one which I think epitomises the food at Condesa, is the charcuterie board. Daniel explained the provenance and production process of everything on the plate, which featured - among other delicacies - the famous Iberico ham, which was slightly sweet and salty and melt-in-the-mouth rich. My favourite, though, was the mojama - dried tuna, served drizzled with olive oil and almonds. This is like nothing I've ever tasted - it's basically tuna, cured in the same way you would meat. The result is an incredible concentration of its sea-sweet saltiness, perfectly offset by the grassy oil and the toasty almonds.
We also tried a delicious Manchego; Daniel explained that he had sampled a nine-month old cheese, but thought it would be too dry for local taste, so chose a six-month specimen instead. It was perfect, delivering that sweet grainy taste I love so much about manchego. You can't serve manchego without membrillo, quince paste, which was also excellent. We also had two different types of olives - manzanilla, and guirdillo, which were slightly spicy.
The Mexican dishes on the menu were probably the most exciting. A ceviche of tuna, with lime, olive oil and agave, had an incredible soft, melting texture, but still retained that subtle flavour of the sea, lifted by the zing of the citrus, perfectly 'cooked' cubes of delicate tuna keeping their shape and flavour. Served on top of a crisp tostada, which balanced out the sharp citrus with a deep, buttery toastiness, it was utterly gorgeous - the kind of fresh-tasting food I could eat all day.
In the same vein and equally wonderful were the prawn tostadas. On top of corn tostadas (baked not fried), sat a fabulous medley of prawns fried with onions, leeks, red cabbage. The prawns were beautifully fresh and sweet, almost buttery in flavour, with a lip-tingling hint of spice. What really made the dish was the habañero mayonnaise, which lent a delicious creamy texture and spice to the whole thing. What I especially loved, though, was that the sweet prawns weren't overpowered by this assertive layering of flavours.
In a similar category to the pork sliders - that of sheer, unadulterated, carnivorous joy - are the braised pigs' cheeks. It's no secret that I love pigs' cheeks, economical morsels of meat that braise down into succulent melting goodness. These were cooked in a mixture of PX sherry, bay leaf, leek, onion, carrot, and served on roast potatoes. I have to say that after the other vibrant, zingy flavours we'd eaten, I found these a little bit on the bland side, but I think that may have been simply because everything else was just so zingy, spicy and delicious. A plate of these on their own would, I'm sure, satisfy any ardent meat cravings. The cheeks were deliciously tender and the sauce rich, thick and meaty.
The ultimate in crowd-pleasing dishes, though, is the corn truffle quesadilla. Both this and the pigs' cheeks were originally on the specials menu, Daniel told us, but they proved so popular that he's decided to put them permanently on the menu. You can't really go wrong with crisp, toasted tortillas sandwiched around melting cheese and earthy, salty, rich corn truffle (a fungus which grows naturally on ears of corn and has a similar deep flavour to Italian truffles). The combination of textures is so satisfying, as is the gooey richness of the melting cheese and deeply savoury truffle within. This is proper comfort food, at a different end of the scale to the vibrant ceviche and tostadas - I would recommend having all of them, to experience the delightful differences in flavour and texture.
To finish, we devoured a plate of exceptional cheeses: Manchego, Valdeon (a Spanish blue cheese from Leon), and Murcia al vino (a goat's milk cheese, the rind of which is washed with red wine during maturation). The Murcia was soft and creamy with that unmistakeable goat milk tang; the Valdeon also deliciously creamy with an assertive blue cheese sharpness. These came with membrillo and fig jam, the latter absolutely wonderful with the Valdeon. To wash all this down, a glass of Crema sherry, which is aged for longer than the other sherries on the menu and as a result is darker and sweeter; it's a great match for the tangy cheese.
The eating experience at Condesa is just as a tapas bar should be - portions are small enough to order a few and make for satisfying sharing, but large enough that you don't feel cheated and have to order out of your price range in order to fill up. The prices are reasonable, too - charcuterie plates range from £5-11, meat dishes around £5-6, fish dishes between £8-11, while salads are around £4-6.
Condesa was genuinely one of the best restaurant experiences I've had in a while. I loved the informality of the place, the friendliness of the staff, the buzzing atmosphere, the delicious wines. Most of all, of course, I loved the vibrant food, which I found truly exciting, a really refreshing change from the standard things you find in restaurants all the time now. I would urge anyone feeling slightly jaded by the generic restaurant scene to go along and let Daniel surprise them with his fabulous and expertly-judged food and wine; I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
(Also, apologies for the slightly dodgy photos - my camera is useless in dim lighting so I had to use my iPhone, which isn't much better...)
Nutmegs, seven dined as a guest of Condesa. Many thanks to Lucy for arranging the evening and to Daniel and his staff for being such excellent hosts.