A new executive chef brings fresh Spanish flavour to this buzzy West End favourite
I am not a good sharer, never have been, though these days I’m more likely to be found keeping expensive cosmetics to myself than toys (hands off the Aromatherapy Associates bath oils, kids). There’s a notable exception though – food. I am famously indecisive when faced with a menu, preferring to keep my options open and team up with others to order a few things for the table, thus allowing a taste of several dishes. It took my other half years to get over his (unnecessary) embarrassment at the consequent portioning up and plate swapping, and even now he doesn’t always indulge my preference to share.
Of course, there are cuisines that positively encourage this type of eating, which is why you’ll often find me choosing to eat at tapas restaurants. And a favourite spot to indulge my Spanish cravings is Aqua Nueva, part of restaurateur David Yeo’s acclaimed Aqua Restaurant Group. Perched high above Regent Street it boasts an enviable location, perfectly placed for a light lunch while out shopping, or an intimate dinner à deux.
Well established on the London food scene, this is no newcomer; along with neighbouring Japanese eatery Aqua Kyoto, and rooftop bar Aqua Spirit, it has been open for over a decade, but it has recently welcomed a new executive chef, Mateo Garcia Leiva. He comes to the Capital fresh from the kitchens of Barcelona’s three Michelin-starred ABaC – thanks to a menu that marries Mediterranean traditions with a modern sensibility and the highest quality produce, this is widely considered to be one of Spain’s finest restaurants. I’m told that Mateo has distilled his experience at ABaC into his own cooking ethos, as demonstrated in the menu he has designed for Aqua Nueva.
The restaurant is as spectacular as I remember; barrel-vaulted ceilings, beautiful tiling, soft leather seating, warm lighting and a palette of earthy tones with gold accents give the space an intimate, Moorish vibe. It is a Tuesday night, but most of the tables are full, and the room is buzzing as we are shown through to our seats at a cosy circular booth in the centre of the room.
As well as introducing new dishes to the à la carte menu, Mateo has designed a series of special menus that will change seasonally, showcasing his home country and its cuisine. When we visit, the special menu is inspired by Spain’s Fiesta de la Rosa del Azafrán, an annual celebration of saffron, the ‘red gold’ of Spanish cuisine. It all sounds divine, but features just one starter, one main and one dessert, rather than the small plates concept I so love. With this in mind, we decide to supplement our à la carte tapas choices with the saffron-themed starter and dessert. And we begin with the Saffron Fiesta, a delicious saffron-infused Calvados, ginger syrup and orange bitter cocktail. First up, exquisite mouthfuls of crab with green apple and pickled chilli on crispy tostada that leave us wanting more. We are soon satisfied on that front – in typical tapas style the dishes come as they are ready, so we enjoy a steady stream of tasty plates, each more beautifully presented than the last. Manchego croquettes flavoured with an indulgent hint of truffle; juicy red prawns with star anise and sofrito cream on rice crisps; pork tenderloin with green pepper cream; and crispy, skin-on cod brandade with Seville orange – everything is exquisite. The saffron All i Pebre is Mateo’s contemporary take on a traditional Valencian dish – smoked eel and pumpkin are served with a gorgeously aromatic saffron bisque. And the arroz con leche with mango is the perfect end to the meal – a comforting bowl of creamy rice pudding delicately flavoured with saffron and cinnamon. If you enjoy tapas I urge you to treat yourself, you won’t be disappointed.