2 Jun 2008

Curing a Vegetarian

IT IS VIRTUALLY impossible to stumble across Camino (Spanish for path). You reach it by putting footsteps of faith down a Dickensian alleyway which punctuates a pacifistically themed bookshop and a currently boarded unit. I thought this was the restaurant, already R.I.P. since I made my booking 18 hours earlier. My mild panic stemmed from the jagged urban geography: this path to lunch lies within an area still so seedy that I thought I would catch something if I hung around too long. Heading past a colourful arty maze, edging left and then - as the cobbles channeled into a bright courtyard with a small olive, barrels and seats - I started to feel clean again. Two doors designate bar and restaurant, divided internally by a long counter.From the the grand druid of hip hangouts, Richard Bigg (Cargo, Market Place, and The Big(g) Chill - which I loathe), this expensively assembled venue seems to polarise opinion: slate or elate.
My friend had plenty of outsized luggage, which they stowed without fuss. We were gestured towards the restaurant, a bright, positive square flooded from a sky dome. The walls and doors are faced with cork bricks, which help temper acoustics. We could still smell the leather emanating from the simple seats and embossed place mats. A couple of touristy design details including painted slogans endanger the crisp image, however. Any more gaudy embellishments from España and it would enter theme restaurant territory. The open plan kitchen ahead of us is home to one of the venue’s main selling points: the parilla (charcoal grill) imported from Bilbao.
Our pleasant, but quiet (possibly even hungover) Hispanic waiter brought a carefully concise wine list, where the majority of bottles are available by the large or small glass, 375ml carafe and bottle. Draft Spanish beer and tart Asturian cider, aeratingly poured from a height, are also promoted, the latter observed by The Observer when they named Camino Best Bar 2008 (even though the year has seven months to run). I revived myself nosing the vapours of Manzanilla from Valdespino, which lays claim to being the oldest sherry bodega. It was measured theatrically against a notched ruler standing on the bar. I chose Embuitidos, a selection of chorizo, salchichón and pork loin discs, served without bread (which carries a £1 surcharge – the devils). My companion dipped into a concisely titled (deep breath) Sopa de Tomate con Tagliatelle Marinado de Pepino y Gamba en Gabardine. It sounded better then it looked (and it didn’t even sound that good). Fortunately the battered tiger prawn did not appear to have suffered too much GBH.
I sometimes fail to appreciate music, but I was adamant, for once, that I knew the album playing like ventilation in the background. I told my friend it was Air; she was convinced it was not. We made a bet. If I was right, she would eat my pork loin (even though she is a vegetarian). She could not think of a suitably scathing punishment for me. We asked the waiter. “One moment”, he said, and then “Have you heard of Air?” She ate the loin.When I asked about a particular wine, Baboix from Montsant, the waiter brought me half a glass to taste. A carafe of this drowningly deeply coloured quintet of Grenache, Carignan, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot followed. Coming from a horseshoe around Priorat, it shared some of its neighbour’s inky, liquorice, herbaceous, slightly salty, oakily spiced character, but was overall lighter and more accessible in its youth.
We shared Paella with saffron stained, firm calasparra rice, cultivated on the banks of the River Segura. Apart from only partially opened, sticky textured mussels which probably hadn’t seen the sea in a while, it was “like pa’s”, a complement according to my companion. The chicken morsels were particularly good, reinforcing the tongue-twisting claim made on Camino’s website: ‘When chickens get to live like chickens, they taste like chickens too’.
Contrary to criticisms about an expensive menu, our bill was as tender and acceptable as the chicken. However, back out under drizzle in the recently re-branded Regent Quarter, which is squirmingly being dragged, kicking and screaming into Islington-esque gentrification, we realised they had forgotten to charge us for drinks.
Overall, I enjoyed Camino. It no doubt goes through many phases over the course of a day, from pastry and coffee haven at breakfast, to lazy lunch and night time salsa den. One thing is for sure: Bigg is ahead of the game when it comes to anticipating the area’s imminent trendiness. And this is no false start.
Camino - Varnisher's Yard, London. N1 9FD. T. 020 7841 7330
Nearest Tube: King's Cross
A timely re-branding here too: The Daily Wine recently became Intoxicating Prose to reflect my broadening interest in restaurants.
NB. my thirst for wine remains unabated...

Camino on Urbanspoon