Tapas in Covent Garden, London:
Condesa – Tapas – Vino – Café
Just off The Strand, on Maiden Lane in the heart of Covent Garden and “Theatre Land” is a little jewel in the London culinary crown; an unpretentious Tapas bar where you can grab a snack, a glass of wine, an excellent coffee as well as a full tapas meal at any time of the day or night – Condesa. I was asked to pop down there to review Condesa last week, and having been in the National Gallery all morning, I made my way down there with my husband for lunch. There are many Latin restaurants and bars on Maiden Lane, and Condesa is one of the smallest, but, what it may lose in size and “commercial slickness” is more than made up with the most excellent food and wine I have ever had the privilege of tasting in England, or indeed London. We were warmly welcomed by Daniel Caballero (the owner) and Sonia and we were instantly struck by the friendly atmosphere as soon as we walked in……
…….Condesa is a long, narrow bar with seats at the bar as well as on the side and back wall; we were ushered to a table with bar stools at the back of the bar. I chatted with Daniel (and took photos) for a while before we got onto the subject of our lunch. Daniel asked us what we wanted to eat, and I suggested he “surprised” us with food from the blackboard and the menu. Malcolm was served a draft Estrella beer whilst I opted for a chilled La Gitana Manzanilla sherry – pure bliss! The blackboard suggested a selection of wines from Spain, Argentina, Chile, Mexico and France with daily tapas specials such as Tuna Ceviche, Potatoes with Aïoli and White Asparagus as well as Corn Truffle and Mushroom Quesadillas. There are two menus to choose from too, a day menu and a night menu, and Daniel told us that the bar was especially busy at night, as well as the end of the week and the weekends.
Daniel told us that ‘Condesa’ is both the name of a “hip” district in Mexico city as well as being the Spanish word for ‘countess’, which brings together the flavour fusions of Mexico and Spain for his Bohemian style tapas bar which provides a truly authentic and intimate setting. The food is supposed to transport you to the gastronomic heights of San Sebastián with dishes such as ceviche, Jamon Ibérico, Pibil pulled pork, chicken sliders and Chorizo Ibérico quesadilla, we BOTH agree that is does just that and had the MOST amazing lunch there. The specials blackboard changes every two days with dishes such as Scallops Ceviche, Mole Chicken Tostada and Mojama. Ingredients are sourced from Spain, Mexico and local quality suppliers, presented simply to allow the big flavours to do the talking. One thing that struck both of us was Daniel’s passion for the food he carefully sources; and the word sourcing came up all the way through our discussion over lunch, and we both thought that’s what made the food so special, as well as freshly made to order dishes and the staff.
The first of many platters arrived just after being served our drinks – we were treated to a Tuna Ceviche with a Tostada; it was simply divine – fresh tuna was mixed with coriander (cilantro), chillies, limes and red onions; the tuna was perfectly “cooked” and was soft and packed full of zingy citrus and herbal flavours with just a hint of heat. The “cooking” juices that were at the bottom of the glass were greedily scooped up by both of us with our crisp tostada.
Next to titillate our taste buds was a platter of mixed cured meats with olives and crusty bread; we were treated to slices of Cecina de Leon – smoked wafers of cured beef; Lomo Ibérico de Bellota – Cured Ibérican acorn fed pork loin; Jamon Ibérico– D.O. Extremadura acorn fed ham and some Chorizo Ibérico. The cured meats were delectable and the careful sourcing was evident – meltingly tender, subtly smoked, paprika and almost honey flavoured cured meats that played with our senses……
…………our next treat was one that Daniel told us that customers come back for over and over again…..we were served Pulled Pork Pibil Sliders; I am a HUGE lover of pulled pork and Condesa’s was the Rolls Royce of pulled pork. The pork had a citrus kick to it and was a kaleidoscope of flavours and textures….the pork was served with rocket leaves in a small soft bun with a bowl of tangy Tomatillo sauce, the perfect accompaniment. (Tomatillos are the key ingredient in fresh and cooked Latin American green sauces. The freshness and greenness of the husk are quality criteria. Fruit should be firm and bright green, as the green colour and tart flavour are the main culinary contributions of the fruit)
The food kept on coming, and our taste buds were in full waltz by now – citrus flavours danced with chillies and pimenton, whilst fresh herbs and cured meats pirouetted on our tongues – it was all served with quiet pride and passion, on simple boards with cutlery in Mexican enamel mugs, it was an experience that was generous and exotic with a touch of Latin style. The next platter was one of the specials of the day – Corn Truffle and Mushroom Quesadillas; crispy tortillas were sandwiched with large meaty mushrooms, with corn truffles on the side. (Huitlacoche – Huitlacoche [wee-tlah-KOH-cheh] (also spelled cuitlacoche) is a fungus which grows naturally on ears of corn (Ustilago maydis) It was an earthy pleasure and very luxurious whilst being rustic at the same time – rustic elegance – crisp and silky with earthy truffles.
We ended our wonderful feast with a mixed cheese board with fig jam, membrillo, walnuts, grapes, Manchego, Mahon and Valdeon cheeses – for a cheese-aholic like me, this was the “icing on the cake”! I was also served a glass of Pedro Ximénez sweet sherry to accompany it, whilst Malcolm enjoyed another Estrella draft beer.
Daniel offered us a coffee, Condesa serves excellent coffees, made with the very best Hasbean coffee which is a blended from Nicaragua, Colombia and Guatemala beans, and as well as coffee we also served a glass of Patrón, a Mexican coffee liqueur that boozy, rich, rounded and quite delicious. Whilst I sipped this delectable Mexican digestif the staff were preparing vegetables for the evening shift, and more people drifted in for coffee and tapas…….we were full, happy and the atmosphere was languid…….
…….the whole Condesa experience was very special – the food was excellent and fresh, the staff were friendly, Daniel was the perfect host and was full of passion for the food that they serve, as well as anecdotes and tales of Mexican food and ingredients. If you have an hour or several hours to spare for coffee, wine or authentic Latin Tapeo, Condesa is the place to go. Dinner service starts at 6pm but the doors open from 11am, and for those of you who work in the area, you HAVE to pop down for one of Condesa’s Bocadillos (artisan home-made sandwiches) of which our Pulled Pork Pibil was one of the choices, as well as Chicken Chiptotle on a Rustic Roll, Jamon Serrano with Olive Oil and Tomatoes and Goat’s Cheese with Cranberry Sauce. Prices range from £3:75 for salads to £13 for the mixed cheese platter, and are all very good value for money. It is without doubt the best Mexican food I have had in London, and is full of soul, much better than more well-known and larger Mexican chain restaurants. With thanks to Daniel, Sonia and Kaska at Condesa for making us feel so welcome and thanks to Edwina for inviting me to review Condesa.
Note: Restaurant owner Daniel Caballero left Mexico in 1998 to be inspired by flavours around the world. In early 2012 Daniel met Madrid born head chef Rafael Serrano stemming from a long-lasting heritage of foodies; together they make the perfect duo to bring Latin lifestyle to Londoners. Like it’s sister bar, Barrio in Battersea, the service at Condesa is relaxed and informal with a Latin-infused playlist sparking a fun and funky place to dine with colleagues and clients or for a casual catch up with friends.
Disclaimer: I was asked to review the food and service at Condesa, I was not required to write a positive review and all opinions are my own. Karen S BurnsBooth
Condesa is open Monday to Sunday 11am – 11pm.
There is a no-booking policy, but larger groups can reserve the big table in the back.
Address: 15 Maiden Ln, Strand, London, Charing Cross, London, Greater London WC2E 7NG, UK