With an Asturian fine-dining menu, Caleya offers a change from tapas for those seeking modern Spanish cooking. Michael Raffael reports.
Marcos Fernandez Prado, co-director of Iberica Food and Culture, underscores a problem for London's Spanish restaurants. Serving tapas in fine-dining settings, he insists, doesn't work. "We have a saying: the monkey who wears a silk dress is still a monkey," he says. Tablecloths and napkins don't suit pinchos on cocktail sticks, fried padron peppers and patatas bravas alioli.
His downstairs bar sells these, Manchego or Mahon cheese with membrillo and a choice of bellota hams. On a Thursday or Friday it can turn over 300 covers. It's busy enough for customers to miss the fine-dining restaurant on the mezzanine floor.
Caleya, from a dialect word for a country lane or track, draws its inspiration from the Asturias. Facing the Bay of Biscay, flanked by Galicia and the Basque Country, it's a green, hilly, fertile region of farmers and fishermen. As in the rest of Spain, its traditional cuisine is evolving.
Asturian chef Nacho Manzano was hired to develop the menu, export recipes and bring know-how from his Michelin-starred Casa Marcial in the Asturian mountains. They've not suffered in transit because Iberica imports critical raw materials - Segovian suckling pig, £24 on the à la carte, and a shoulder of suckling lamb that's slow-cooked with thyme and then roasted to set the skin, offered on the £60, eight-course tasting menu.
Iberica's chef, Santiago Guerrero, ex-Waterside and El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, keeps in daily touch with Manzano. "He has his finger on the pulse of what's going on in Spain. We want to do things as close as possible to the way they do it there," he explains.
From clams in tomato water consommé served as a taster, to a labour-intensive rice pudding presented on slate for £6 - "We make it like a risotto and it takes about one-and-a-half hours" - dishes look like and taste of what they are. Diver-caught scallop wrapped in a transparent tocino (Iberico ham fat) film with artichokes priced at £13, juggles sweetness, saltiness, tenderness and crispness.
Black leg chicken - cockerel actually - with piquillo pepper and saffron for £19, is a modern take on pitu de caleya, a stewed barnyard fowl and rice dish. Croquetas that spill savoury béchamel on to the plate when split, or a fried corn-cake shell filled with shallots, scrambled egg and blue Cabrales cheese followed by fabada, a white bean stew with black pudding, chorizo and bacon make up the first three courses of seven on a £42 Asturian classic menu.
Octopus, simmered in its own juices, combines with cèpes, white onion and pimenton-flavoured olive oil for £11, or a warm salad of baby leeks, carrots and spinach with a chickpea mayonnaise served in a light cocido broth for £9, reflect their roots, but are elegant enough for city palates.
Prado has noticed that regular customers often order several starters from the à la carte to be served in the middle of the table as a collective first course.
The 35-seat restaurant shares its kitchen, staffed by a brigade of nine, with the downstairs bar. Chef Guerrero keeps one sous chef in charge of each section but rotates the rest. "It stops them getting territorial," he says. He sees his role as a "fire fighter", focusing his attention on where the pressure is.
Caleya opens evenings only. "We made a mistake by not launching it at the same time as the bar," Prado concedes. In Iberica's first five months, upstairs provided extra space when the bar was packed. It has taken longer, as a result, to spread the word that a separate and distinct eating experience was on offer. Now, it's running close to capacity, averaging between 28 and 32 covers, thanks in part to its popularity with expat Spaniards.
For Iberica's bar, Guerrero also cooks modern tapas-sized specials: Quail with chocolate Guanaja, pomegranate and creamy potato, £7.80; Slow-stewed beef with chickpea and carrot purée, £8; Sweet pigs' trotters with Mahon cheese and Iberico ham, £7.
Iberica Food and Culture, 195 Great Portland Street, London W1W 5PS
Tel: 020 7636 8650
WHAT'S ON THE MENU
- Stewed belly of cod with sweet pepper consommé and pil-pil glaze, £9
- Marinated yellow-tail tuna loin with grain mustard, Granny Smith apples and Asturian fresh cider, £13
- Asturian white bean stew with chorizo, morcilla and pancetta, £9
- Grilled fillet of turbot with sea-urchin sauce and sweet potato purée, £19
- Whole pigeon cooked two-ways with quinoa, foie with toast, £23
- Crispy confit Segovian suckling pig, apple purée and frizzy salad, £24
- Granita of mixed berries, lemon sorbet and meringue batons, £6
- Crème caramel with moscavado sugar, Granny Smith apple consommé, black olives and rocket, £5
- Mousse of Jijona nougat with light chocolate sponge and mandarin sorbet, £6