Photo by Melanie Aronson
The Tatami Room
There’s always something reassuring about the opening of a veteran restaurateur’s new restaurant.
Giles Brown’s Mosquito, the pan-Asian tapas bar and Chinese dumpling house in La Ribera, has grown from strength to strength over the past couple of years. So the opening of his latest venture with British partners Jason Rowles and Hugo Lonsdale has been awaited with high expectation.
Izakaya in style—all three partners are passionate about the food and culture of Japan—which roughly translates to something between a tapas bar and a pub, in this case featuring a narrow bar at the entrance that leads down a staircase into a softly lit, atmospheric basement of brick walls, soft lighting and sunken dining area of woven straw tatami mats and plump cushions. Take your shoes off before settling down. Slippers are provided for trips to the loo.
It is also home to an impressive cellar of specialty craft beers, presided over by the charismatic ‘T’, who is something of a cult figure in Perthshire, Scotland, where he was awarded ‘Cellar Man of the Year’ for his work at the Sheriff Muir Inn. If you must, there’s also a small wine list, a house white and a house red, both of which hail from a small winery in Tarragona.
In this cosy and endearing environment then, eating is homey, rustic and satisfying; sometimes delicate, sometimes boldly sauced. Crucially, it is made for sharing. With dishes ranging between €2.50 and €7.95, go with a gang of friends and order with gay abandon from a menu ranging between crowd pleasing Yakitori of negima (juicy chicken and spring onion skewers) to more earthily exotic lega (chicken liver skewers), tori kawa (crispy chicken skin), and my personal favourite: fat little chunks of meltingly tender buta (belly pork) slow cooked then crisped on the grill. They also offer a nice line in Kushiyaki (grilled meat and vegetables) of which I best like the bacon-wrapped enoki mushrooms and whole heads of garlic; in Kushiage (delicious morsels like quails eggs and scallops dipped in Japanese breadcrumbs and deep fried); and in buttery tender sashimi of salmon, mackerel and tuna. There is no sushi.
It’s all great appetite whetting stuff, but if you’re looking to sate it, there are some unusual, heartier dishes to get stuck into. Tongue twisting Atsu Atsu Tetsu Nabe (basically meaning hot dishes), include an unlikely, but curiously addictive, chicken kimchi consisting of chicken on spiced cabbage topped with cheese sauce, and Genghis Khan, a Japanese curry of spiced lamb with seasonal vegetables, which, while tasty enough, did seem rather like the Indian dish Sag Gosht (lamb with spinach) to me.
Hiyayakko—cold silken tofu in an aromatic dashi broth topped with fluttering bonito flakes and a sprinkle of chopped chives—is simple and delicate, a thing of loveliness. As indeed are the handmade noodles with sesame and Iberian pork, though the noodle highlight must surely be the Saracen noodles with aderezo mentsuyu (a traditional soy, mirin, sake and dashi dressing), available to order with 24 hours’ notice. It seems like a lot of trouble to go to for a bowl of noodles, not in Japan I might add, but the experience is all the richer for it.
Of desserts, there are but a few, including those strangely wonderful mochis beloved by Japanese rock chicks, and some strikingly different ice-creams in green tea, cardamom and white sesame.
All things considered then, I’d say the Tatami Room is one 2011 venture that’s going to be a roaring success.