I float into Copita in a very ‘whatever’ frame of mind. Another tapas-y, small plates joint in Soho, no bookings, a design template that’s now becoming almost as hackneyed as checked tablecloths and Chianti bottles. ‘I see they’ve bought the How To Design A Soho Restaurant handbook,’ snarks the pal.
There are tiled walls and industrial-looking lighting. You have to prop up the bar or perch on stools at communal benches. There’s likely to be a meedja Sarah or Sophie bellowing about viewing figures or Borgen opposite you. The thermostat seems to be permanently set to boiling, and retro ceiling fans do little to stir the soupy heat. None of this does anything to lift my ennui.
So how come I find myself coming back here time and again, for long, boozy lunchtimes (when it’s far less frenetic than evenings), or to grab a couple of small plates and a fragrant sherry before hitting the Soho night hard. Because it’s bloody excellent, that’s why.
Each time I go, the menu is different. Initially, I make the mistake of ordering my beloved acorn-fed Ibérico ham, small slivers of the prized Don Augustín brand piled on to a wooden board with a basket of bread (charged at a quid, but refilled as frequently as you like) and some nicely niche Spanish cheeses.
On repeat visits, I wise up, ordering the likes of ‘mussels and chips’: fat shellfish in a garlicky broth, with an earthenware dish ‘hat’ of fried potatoes. Or boquerones, fat, meaty sardines rather than anchovies, slicked with the clean flavours of good oil and fresh lemon.
But this is the straightforward stuff. More impressive is ajo blanco; wonderfully complex white gazpacho made with garlic and almonds with tiny cubes of almost candied beetroot and cool slivers of grape. It’s summer in a dish, despite grey London skies. Or veal cheek, so meltingly tender we eat it with spoons, in a sticky pool of its own juices boosted by the raisiny, honeyed sweetness of Pedro Ximénez sherry.
Plancha-ed meat – Ibérico pork pluma served fashionably rare, maybe; or rosy petals of properly hung venison with Jerusalem artichoke purée – is a real strength. A dish that could encapsulate the whole ethos is this one: tiny rounds of rabbit with a topping of buttery hollandaise. There are little chunks of fresh, sweet scallop here and there, plus crisp, frazzled pancetta. It’s sophisticated, creative, not hidebound by any notions of authenticity – and totally works. Yes, the servings are tapas-teeny. The only generous serving is of morcilla de bellota, not mulchy, cooked black pudding, but a cold, slicing blood sausage; ironically, so rich, fatty and highly flavoured we can’t finish it. But, oh my, I’ll cross town happily for more of their truffled pea croquetas.
Owner Tim Luther, also behind Goodge Street’s similarly excellent Barrica, has a background in wine-importing. So no surprises that there’s a smartly chosen list of wines and sherries, all available by the glass. Of all the bottles I try, Clos Pons Sisquella, a bewitching blend of Moscatel, Garnacha Blanca and Albariño grapes, is the utterest heaven. ‘Be careful,’ says our waiter as he plonks it into the wall-mounted ice bucket, ‘it’s dangerously drinkable.’ He’s not wrong. There’s even ‘vermuth’, newly fashionable again in Spain, though sadly not ‘de grifo’ (on tap), as it is in Madrid’s foodie paradise of Mercado de San Miguel.
Each time I go, I fall back out into D’Arblay Street with a bill of about a ton (and on one bibulous occasion, considerably more). But nobody bats an eyelid if you just fancy some olives and a glass of Fino. I go with one pal who objects to the informality and bustle, and the fact that you can frequently be eating with someone’s elbow in your back. But I dismiss him with a tart: ‘Have you ever eaten in a busy tapas bar in Spain?’
I read somewhere that the owners wanted to emulate the iconic Cuchara de San Telmo in San Sebastián. I’ve eaten there recently (I know, I know: I get about) and I’m confident that the dishes issuing from Copita’s kitchen are as good as the ‘nueva cocina vasca’ of its cult northern Spanish counterpart. There’s talk of them adding some pintxos (Basque-style tapas) to the menu, too.
A gin and tonic, served in the kind of goldfish-bowl-sized goblets you get in the finest (read: deadliest) Spanish bars and a stool looking out on to Soho, with the promise of a steady stream of gorgeousness from kitchen head honcho James Knight’s stoves. I am so there.
A meal for two with wine, water and service costs from about £50 to loads. 27 D’Arblay Street. www.copita.co.uk