Eating Out

Thanks for not sharing

Lisa Hilton says tapas are over-hyped, over-priced and have overstayed their welcome

This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Little silver linings: small plates have no future. Covid might at least deliver us from the tyranny of tapas. Spanish friends have often confessed themselves literally bewildered by the idea of having tapas for dinner. Whether in Andalucía or Catalonia, tapas were properly bar snacks, tiny portions designed to soak up booze. Turning them into an event is basically the equivalent of the landlord of the Dog and Duck sticking a pickled egg on a plate and charging you a tenner. Why would you?

Someone back in the Nineties conflated tapas with raciónes, larger plates which are meant to be sampled jointly and ordered sequentially, moving from cold to hot dishes. Then a savvy operator on the Ramblas got wise to the fact that Brits on mini-breaks (remember those?), wanted teeny plates of everything served at once and a curse was spawned. Peruvian, Italian, Moroccan tapas — the mark-up is silly and it’s no bother for the kitchen — sling it all out randomly and make the customers feel provincial if they object to seafood after game or the soup arriving at the end. Sharing was so cool, so chilled, so charmingly simple and unfussy.

The most egregious sharing plate experience I ever loathed was “dinner” at the Groucho Club. Someone was a member, someone else was high, it was 11pm and someone felt it was a good idea to break bread with the ghost of Julie Burchill.

The waitress informed us that the dishes would appear according to the chef’s timings, presumably whatever they could be arsed to microwave between spliff breaks by the bins. Sardines followed pâté, scallops were destroyed by spicy charcuterie, oysters appeared alongside a lemon tart. It would have been quicker to scoop up the vomit pre-mixed from the gutter of Dean Street.

Sticks’n’Sushi is a successful, hard-nosed franchise which hasn’t survived for a generation because of its rebel take on a wooden skewer

From the inception of the restaurant in the eighteenth century, ordering or “bespeaking” a menu used to be considered an essential art. A “choice” dinner was a well chosen one, considered in all its complementary elements. The small-plates obsession assumes a breezy air of relaxed adventure — a smear of chimichurri here, a dash of ponzu there — but the reality on the table was inevitably disharmonious.

Selecting dinner democratically is better in theory than in practice, because there’s a reason why good cooks and good chefs pay so much attention to the progression and ingredients of plates. Bespeaking was a masculine prerogative, like carving at table. As the Georgian authority Lord Chesterfield stipulated, “A man who tells you gravely that he cannot carve, may as well tell you that he can’t blow his nose; it is both as easy and as necessary.”

And thus the death of tapas. “Droplets” is such a genteel word, a mealy-mouthed euphemism for phlegm. Snot. Pus. Slime. The substances which accumulate in the tissues of the respiratory tracts. How do you fancy that last scrape of cumin-roast carrot hummus now?

“It is not amiss,” Chesterfield continues, “to know how to parler cuisine, and to be able to dissert upon the growth and flavour of wines. These, it is true are very little things; but they are little things that occur very often.”

So among all the gastronomic casualties of this tragic year, I have a curmudgeonly hope that we might have seen the last of the type of little things as rendered, for example, by Sticks’n’Sushi. This 21-strong chain, founded by Danish-Japanese brothers, has been slapping out mediocre sushi in Copenhagen, the UK and most recently Berlin since the beginning of the tapas cult in 1994.

There’s nothing special to hate about it, except synechdochically. The branch in Covent Garden’s Henrietta Street doesn’t offend excessively against its original eighteenth-century architecture, the staff are friendly and infinitely less irritating than the “darling” lobbers up the road at the Groucho, the ingredients are fresh, ethically sourced box-tickers.

The menu is a varied combination of classic sushi and sashimi and yakitori-style skewers, with loads of vegan or vegetarian options and bushes of vibrant crunchy salads. Luxe notes are delivered by caviar and wagyu tartare and there’s a wildly patronising “Yummy Mummy” section on the website to reassure anxious pregnant ladies. The black sesame dressing is actually very nice.

A nod to composition is even offered in the set combos of sharing dishes, designed for two or more, from all-plant “Greenkeeper” through pile-it-high “As Good as It Gets” to “Mixed Emotions” for ditherers.

It’s the smugness, maybe. Sticks’n’Sushi is a successful, hard-nosed franchise which hasn’t survived for a generation because of its rebel take on a wooden skewer. It has thrived because it can get away with overcharging for indifferently prepared, coyly arranged, joke-sized sharing portions, which are just so much more hip than individual plates.

The pretence is that this is a blend of “Japanese traditionalist” and “Danish anarchist”. One wonders how that would work if you offered to pay with a haiku.

Sticks’n’Sushi, 11 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, London WC2E 8PY, 020 3141 8810


Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover