Delicioso Mundo

To eat well… or rather not to eat

Fino Restaurant

33 Charlotte Street  London W1T 1RR

Fino Restaurant is located in a lively area,  just off Charlotte Street in Fitzrovia, but in an ugly and kind-of-dirty street (its entrance is on the quiet Rathbone Street). A friend of mine brought me here and told me that this is a successful tapas bar in London, which offers great-quality Spanish food. Therefore, my expectations were high, to say the least.

In the first place, apart from the fact that this restaurant is quite hidden, to reach it you have to walk down long stairs, and this may be terribly annoying in several cases:

A) Always.

B) When you are wearing heels.

C) When you do not want to put your «life» at risk (who knows? You can just fall through those inconvenient stairs  due to the heels you are wearing, because you drunk a little too much wine in a previous bar, or just because you are that silly).

D) Also… whenever you want to have battery in your mobile.

So the evening started with the wrong foot, but I do not like to judge the match by the first half, although in this case the second time totally matched the promising beginning.

Downstairs, you either have to choose to sit in the restaurant or in the bar, and that is usually fine, but not when the bar is isolated from the restaurant. If you decide to sit in the bar, you cannot see the people in the restaurant, and people from the restaurant cannot see you, and I found this quite weird, because when you go out you enjoy seeing people around. To be alone, I stay at home, to be honest. Besides, in the bar there were only a few places and very separated from each other. We picked the bar as the place seemed to be a bit pretentious to be a Spanish tapas bar, and we just wanted an informal drink after all. We were completely alone, and I realised that the whole place was like a hotel more than a cozy restaurant. At some point I even felt like I was in a non-cool cruise. We joked about it, and my friend even added that she felt like if we were back in our Christian student residence from our university years in Pamplona, long time ago. That cannot be good, can be?

The point is that nothing made me feel like if I was in Spain. That is the terrible reality about Spanish restaurants in London: They are as bad as hell, nothing to do with real Spanish restaurants. In the bar everything was old fashion, with dark wood furniture, strange-outmoded and tacky paintings hanging in the walls… The tables were little and too short for those old arm-chairs (so uncomfortable that our forks keep on falling on the floor), and even the barman was dressed in a uniform that erroneously pretended to give prestige to the place, but that just did not work (although it certainly matched the ambience!) The restaurant was nicer, but that does not mean much if the bar is that démodé.

To sum up, we ordered just a few tapas and a humble garrafa of red wine. The cheapest bottle of wine was £28 and that one is usually a bad/acid/Tempranillo wine). Have a look at the wines menu below. The first wine to come up costs £120, and the second £220; that can give you an idea about the ostentation of the place. We ordered the garrafa for obvious reasons (when you come from a wine country and see how restaurants overprice it in other countries your blood starts boiling quickly). We ordered a modest Godelia Mencía (Bierzo 2010) and this was £17. Let me clarify, in case someone does not know, that a garrafa is just 375 ml. So we drunk one glass each (£8,5 cost each glass). In Spain, let me explain this as well, a glass of good-normal wine never goes higher than €4. Well, it obviously depends on where you are drinking it (if the place is fancy or not), but in any normal place almost any wine will be a good-very decent wine, and it will cost less than €4. It is absolutely probable, besides, that you can enjoy a good red Rioja for just €2 and I am sure that the same wine we drunk would be around €1. Have a look at Fino´s drink menu and cry (or laugh, as you prefer):

We could only ordered a few tapas, because the menu is very limited in the bar (a very silly rule). On the other hand, the waiter, who was anything but Spanish, told us nervously that the prices in the menu were not right; all the tapas, all of a sudden, had increased around £1. After that, he started «singing» for us all the cocktails they had available to drink, and I swear I thought the list was not ever going to end; and, while he was spitting to the air weird names for simple drinks, I could not help thinking that cocktails were, again, anything but Spanish. We ordered ham croquetas, piquillo (a type of red pepper) croquetas, fried squid and tortilla de patatas. The waiter informed us that we could also ordered «toasted almonds!», but those were not as exciting for us as they seemed to be for him, so we decided not to go for them.

A waitress brought us too soon the little tortilla, of which she was very proud (she said so!), the croquetas (two on each ration) and the small plate of squid. A little sad image for a hungry stomach indeed. The tapas looked good, and it was surprising that the tortilla was «Tortilla de Betanzos», a style in which the inside is very juicy, with the egg barely cooked. The thing is that I am used to eating this tortilla and this one was totally uncooked. It was directly raw. When I cut it, a little swimming pool was created and made the poor tortilla almost sunk. OK, maybe I am exaggerating a little bit, but the thing is that the tortilla was not properly cooked, as the outside was quite black, tasted a bit burnt, and had its eggs totally raw. A good Spanish Tortilla de Betanzos is indeed difficult to cook. It is delicious but hard to achieve: After having fried well the onion and the potatoes and having mixed them with the eggs, you must heat very much the pan in order to curdle the omelette quickly and keep very juicy the inside. But one thing is moist and a very different one is to let the eggs completely raw. The fire they used was clearly too high. Besides that, the first piece I tried was too salty, like it happened with the squid,  which were salty some of them whereas others were tasteless, and which got cold suspiciously fast. The piquillo croquetas were good: two tasty big balls (not like typical Spanish croquetas, which have a cylinder form). But the ham ones, although they were nice and real (meaning this that they had proper Béchamel), were also too salty.

A big dissapointment, because it was like if they knew the theory but they were having an awful cooking day. Maybe their salt cellars have big apertures instead of small holes, like it should be… I really do not know, but there were some basic cooking mistakes in their kitchen that an expensive place cannot afford to commit.

We did not have dinner, considering how little we ate (we definitely would have ordered more if the food was delicious), but it still cost us 40.03 quid (they include a service charge of a 10%,;quite a lot, if you ask me), plus the Spanish man who came to our table to swipe our credit cards charged us a bit more (£20.53 each); either he did not study basic Maths, he had fat fingers or he was just being a smarty. I did not want to complain, and I am not ashamed to complain in any unfair situation that comes up in life, but there were so many things to complain about that night that I considered it was better to report the whole experience in the internet, in wonderful permanent form.

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Billingsgate Fish Market

Billingsgate Fish Market is located in east London, in the south-east corner of the City, not far from where it was originally established, and it is surrounded by huge buildings in which the most important British banks have put their offices. It opens everyday from 5 am to 8.30 am except on Mondays. It does open on Sundays, but they only sell shellfish, not fish.

The best way to get there is by underground. In Bank station (you can arrive there in the Central line, the red one) take the DLR towards Beckton and get off in Poplar; that is the closest station.

You still need to walk for about 10 minutes, but there is no way you get lost, as the building is quite visible. There will always be people around with trolleys and plastic bags going towards the place, so just follow them. They will give you bags in the market, but just one, so it is recommendable to bring some yourself to avoid unlikeable incidents.

Even if it is going to be a warm day, in the area is humid and foggy because of its location, so grab a coat (or a jacket if it is Summer), and wear confortable shoes with two or three pair of shocks. No kidding. The floor is continously wet, as the vendors are always cleaning the area with watering hoses, so although you are wearing good shoes, these can absorb humidity very easily.

Once inside it is advisible to have a look at all the stalls before purchasing any sea food.

The sellers are mainly English, Chinese, Indian and a few of them, Turkish. The Chinese sell basically frozen fish; and be careful with some Indians and Turkish, who will try to sell you fish from doubtful procedence, that they expose without ice whatsoever and with a horrible appearance.

Coming from a city by the seaside in the north of Spain where the fish is always absolutely  fresh, that is unaccetable. I do not understand how can they think that the fish can be kept in ambient temperature. It is advisable to buy shellfish only when this is alive, and fish when this is on top of clean ice. I was horrified whenever I saw men expecting to sell dead lobsters and crabs (obviously at cheaper prices) and also whenever I found fish rotting in dirty-with-blood water; and this was so common in the market!

You have to avoid those stalls if you want to get fresh fish from the Billingsgate Fish Market. The shellfish has to be alive and if the fish is inside water, it obviously means that the ice has melted some time ago. If the ice is dirty it just means that someone has changed the ice but beware… the fish has started rotting! Do not let them trick you.

This was the only stall selling lobsters and crabs alive.

The best seller, for me, it was James Nash & Son Ltd. It has the freshest sea food from all the market, without a doubt.

Once you have walked across the whole market you will have had the opportunity to see the fish and shellfish that look best, and the more attractive prices as well. They even sell sharks! With a terrible appearance, though…

Sellers are friendly; they will tell you all their prices plus they will give you tips on how to cook the fish.

The scallops are great, usually king size, and they can be bought at £15.50, £16.50 or £20.00. I tried the ones at £15.50 because they looked even better than the others, and they were fresh and very tasty, so I would recommend you go for those ones (as long as they look fresh). They are sold in a 1kg box. Cook them in a pan with very hot olive oil (just a little bit), rock salt, plenty of garlic and fresh pursley on top: they will be just amazing.

The market is really busy from 6:00 am till 8 am. At 8:30 am is practically empty.

This gentleman´s name is Roger and he is the most mediatic seller at Billingsgate Fish Market (if you Google to find about the market, he will come up several times). The fish he is selling, though, is not the most popular or, most importantly, fresh.

I bought several pieces from the market: anchovies (1 kg at only £4,50; cheap although not completely fresh); sea bream (6 for £5); frozen big king prawns (4 boxes at £10, worth it); frozen squid (3 boxes at £4.50); cod (£10/kg, a bit expensive for what it was), king scallops (£15.50/kg, fresh and worth it); and, the best of all,  monkfish (£10/kg, totally worth it).

It is a bit annoying to clean and I would highly recommend eating it in a good restaurant. It is not just to cut its ugly face  (which I did not want to paste here, to avoid scaring someone), and neither the thick skin of its «neck», but also the rebel thin layer of skin that covers its body. It seems a bit like plastic and it is really hard to remove. If you do not remove it prior to cooking, then I guess you could just peel this one later, but it would be annoying.

There are several ways to cook the monkfish, but for me, the best is to cut it into medium pieces and deep fry them (with flour and egg). In Spain is very typical to order it like this, as «Fritos de Rape» or «Fritos de Pixín» (in Asturias). If the fish is fresh, you will remember the experience! The monkfish is very popular because it tastes very similar to the lobster, but it is easier and cleaner to eat. Simply delicious.

Regarding the prices at the Billingsgate market, I do not think it is extremelly cheap, but it is definitely cheaper than in the super markets and you can buy much fresher sea food, so it is worth a try.

What the Wiki tells us about this market…

Billingsgate Fish Market takes its name from Billingsgate, a ward in the south-east corner of the City of London, where the riverside market was originally established. In its original location in the 19th century, Billingsgate was the largest fish market in the world.[1]

Billingsgate Wharf, close to Lower Thames Street, became the centre of a fish market during the 16th and 17th centuries but did not become formally established until an Act of Parliament in 1699.[2] In 1849, the fish market was moved off the streets into its own riverside building, designed by J. B. Bunning and built by John Jay, which was demolished around 1873 and replaced by an arcaded market hall designed by City architect Horace Jones and built by John Mowlem & Co. in 1875.[3] This building, known as Old Billingsgate Market, is now used chiefly as an office and corporate events venue.

The writer George Orwell worked at Billingsgate in the 1930s, as did the Kray twins in the 1950s.

In 1982, the fish market was relocated to a new 13-acre (53,000  sq m) building complex on the Isle of Dogs, close to Canary Wharf. Most of the fish sold through the market now arrives there by road, from ports as far afield as Aberdeen and Cornwall.

The infamously coarse language of London fishmongers made «Billingsgate» a byword for crude or vulgar language.[4] One of its earliest uses can be seen in a 1577 chronicle by Raphael Holinshed, where the writer makes reference to the foul tongues of Billingsgate oyster-wives.

The market is depicted during Tudor times in Rosemary Sutcliff‘s 1951 children’s historical novel The Armourer’s House.

Billingsgate Market is open from Tuesday to Saturday. Trading commences at 5 a.m. and finishes at 8:30 a.m. Security for the market is provided by the private Market Constabulary.[5]

Café España

Cafe Espana is a little restaurant in 63 Old Compton Street, in Soho. I have been to this place about ten times since I came to live to London. But do not get me wrong. This is not a good place to eat; moreover, it is an awful one, and I would hate if English people thought that this place is anyhow representative of the Spanish food.

The fried squid, the prawns in garlic, the garlic chicken, the Spanish omelette…. everything tastes really bad in this place. The fish is not fresh whatsoever and it is fried with obviously many-times-used olive oil. Sometimes they completely forget to put salt and other times the plates are extremely salty.

Yesterday I went to Café España again because it had been a long time since we did not go (more than two years) and it is not that we forgot how bad the food tastes, but we were kind of hoping that the place improved, and we wanted to have the only good thing this place had: an intimate environment and nobody rushing us to finish our food (it closes at 1 Monday to Saturday, which is something good in a city that usually sleeps at 11 pm). The thing is that we actually had good times in this restaurant in the past, watching the Londoners pass through those little Victorian windows in the first floor that you can see in the photo, having deep conversations that you just cannot have in many other places, listening to typical Spanish music, dealing with the friendly owners, waiters and even with the people around, drinking cheap-but-still-good red wine… The environment was really great (one day we even sung all together Sevillanas and the Happy Birthday song to me), and the fabulous garlic bread, of course. That is the ONLY thing this place makes well. The garlic bread is really nice (still), perfectly tosted (crispy but soft), hot, wit the correct amount of garlic… it has got a 10 from me, but it is not a matter of eating just garlic bread for dinner.

Yesterday the experience was worst than ever. The fried squid, one of the few things that were decent before, were absolutely terrible. The rations are now smaller than they used to be, but we could not even finish that plate of horrendous squid. The fried anchovies were the best of the night for me (boquerones fritos) although a bit salty, and they were OK if you compared with the rest of things we ordered. The chicken croquettes were two, and the chicken taste on them was too artifitial, like if they did them with a huge Magi cube. The Spanish omelette was indescriptible. The potatoes were barely cooked, the egg was artifitial (made with Huevina); it had onion but too big cut and uncooked, with asparagous in the middle…: Atrocious. Even the house wine is worse than it used to be, and bad wine in a Spanish restaurant… is something it should be forbidden.

When we entered the restaurant, we saw one of the owners going out. Perhaps his working hours had finished or maybe he is not working serving tables anymore there and he just went to check on the staff… I am not sure. This guy told us in the past that they were from Galicia and there was another guy there who resembled him, so I suppose those two brothers are the owners of the business. Who knows, who knows. I really do not care. The place was bad in the past, but it managed to get even worst. The only charming thing that had (apart from the garlic bread): that lovely music, friendly Spanish waiters… it´s gone. There are now Italian waiters, who look overwhelmed serving the tables and breaking glasses continuously; the music is too low, sometimes it even stops… and everything makes this a nasty experience to live.

The charming soul of that horrible little place has definitely died and I would not recommend it even to an enemy.

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