Image from Celebdu on Flickr
Choosing restaurants to take your parents to is tricky. Especially when you’ve got the added parameters of having to be finished by 7pm and be near Waterloo so we could make it to the Old Vic in time to see The Cherry Orchard. A spot of research on Twitter led me to La Barca. Luckily, I didn’t look at the reviews on London Eating, otherwise we would never have gone…
“The service was slow, rude and pompous.”
“It's one of the most overpriced restaurants I've been too.”
“La Barca used to be great; there's clearly something seriously awry with it now.”
“My advice - only visit here if you're prepared to put up with badly cooked food and poor customer service, we certainly won't be going again.”
On the night the air was stickier than a fly catcher and more saturated than a toner cartridge. Sweat clung to my back and made me feel like a filthy urchin. Just typing it makes me feel clammy. So the beautifully air-conditioned interior of La Barca was gloriously welcome.
With 5 of us eating (and Dad paying) we were able to sample a wide range of their impressive, but robustly priced menu. My Mother and Sister guzzled their enormous prawns, still enveloped by their terracotta shells, in garlic and lemon butter before any of us got a look in. They looked sensational. When quizzed Mum said it was the best thing she’d eaten in ages. Dad’s smoked salmon parcel contained a cushion of crab meat that had him purring like our geriatric Siamese cat. Meanwhile Cowie’s bresaola with truffle oil and parmesan was a treat. My grilled sardines were, grilled sardines.
Whilst the starters were good, the mains stole the show. Cowie devoured her pink centred tuna. Dad demolished his mixed platter of fried white fish with a grin on his face that apparently I’ve inherited. Whilst Mum enjoyed her rosy best end of lamb with a slightly dodgy gravy. But, it was my dish that stole the show.
Because we’d arrived late I’d ordered very quickly and without much thought. Why I ordered sardines, I’m not quite sure. But where I’d missed out on the first course I won on the main course. It was like accidentally filling in a lottery ticket and winning the jackpot.
My “Spaghetti a La Barca” arrived in a paper bag and was lovingly spooned, tableside, into my bowl. Squirmy spaghetti jostled with plump mussels, clams, squid rings, tentacles, scallops and a vast tiger prawn. And mingled with a spiced tomato sauce that I managed to splatter all over my white shirt. It’s one of the best bowls of pasta I’ve ever had.
I loved it so much I asked them how it’s made. Apparently they boil the pasta and make a rich tomato sauce with some mild chilli to give it background heat. They then pour the pasta and sauce into a paper bag and add the seafood before baking it in the oven for 10-15 minutes with the lid on.
The technique is elaborated upon by John Thorne, in “Simple Cooking”:
“With the paper bag method, the pasta is cooked in the ordinary way until it is almost done, then mixed with the sauce and put in the oven to bake. Since the bag is collapsed around its contents and sealed, the flavour of the sauce completely penetrates the pasta.
There is also a second advantage. Because no moisture escapes, the cook has the opportunity to get a maximum amount of flavour from a minimum of undiluted sauce...”
As we walked across the road to the Old Vic, Mum and Dad said it was one of the best meals they’ve had in London for many years. It’s not cheap, but if you just order the pasta in a bag and have a bottle of house wine you can’t go too far wrong. The negative comments on London Eating seemed very wide of the mark. If you are planning a trip to the Old Vic with your family, then a trip to La Barca before hand is just the ticket.