After a prolonged spell of introspection on how to approach an overdue column on my favorite restaurants my pondering came to a somewhat surprising and poignant conclusion. My affair with eating throughout my electoral home of London was largely facilitated by my re-discovery of Spanish Cuisine back in the mid to late noughties. The Hart Brother’s basement gem FINO served as a vehicle for this transformation and also hosted many of the most significant and joyous moments of my last ten years.
As with all stories of this kind there must be binding components – first a head over heels onset, then a complete obsession and tunnel vision followed by a long term passion and lasting affection. Now, after more than a decade – and to make things even more dramatic, after a melancholic and painful ending – I find myself as the protagonist of a love story worth wearing the name.
Fino changed my life for the better. There is no overstating this truth. I was liberated of philistine notions, be it the bad taste and heavy bills left behind by many michelin stared salesmen performing in disposable restaurants and hotels, or so called “chefs” both here and back home that create nothing but stooge wrapped in tired excuses of tradition.
Instead Fino was pleasure. Real pleasure. Maybe because with every visit it stripped away my own and my companions tiring preconceptions and inhibitions and replaced them with childish and pure satisfaction. Fino opened my eyes, literally and metaphorically. One day there was just food and the next day there was something completely and utterly different. Something I wanted, all of it – over and over again. It made me want to eat and taste the way I eat and taste today. And until my last breath, this is what I shall love doing.
It seems to me that in the end every truly pleasurable experience in food is the same, regardless of time, place or cuisine. Facades and inhibitions are temporarily lowered and your infantile, pleasure-driven self allows you to feel deep and extensive satisfaction without the usual nuisances of oughts and shoulds. The fact that we can’t get to this state easily is manifested as layer upon layer of complication we place upon our desires. Sometimes to not feel guilty, sometimes to regulate our greed but often also to not show our vulnerabilities. Because when are we more vulnerable than in moments of real happiness? Without the behavioral armor worn by all of us as emotional protection we can be truly injured, right where it hurts.
Our connection with food is where I can see this more clearly than in any other human relation. It seems we all share the challenge of battling some form of these obstacles in the way to true enjoyment. Unfortunately, no accumulation of Michelin stars or pile of truffle-foie-gras-on-kobe-beef will help to alleviate, at least not necessarily. What is needed is something quite simple that passes through the walls of criticism like a trojan horse. Then, from somewhere real, deep inside oneself the war is won and we are liberated to eat and drink with no inhibitions.
Fino tought me this before I understood it. Simple dishes do not have to lack sophistication. In fact, making an amazing plate of octopus with capers needs a precise measure of both. And a good drizzle of Spanish olive oil. And a happy octopus to start with, if there is such a thing.
I have been going to Fino and Barrafina for almost 10 years on a rather regular basis. Fino’s basement decoration was out of date, there were no windows and the bathrooms were small. But it almost hurts to think of all the people that won’t know what joy was had in this space. Whenever and whoever attends whatever new trendy Noho-Thing will take over Fino’s space – I feel privileged to be amongst the select few that will always remember what happened there before.
Almost anybody and everybody I ever cared about has been there with me, most more than once. Amongst dozens of visits and thousands of pounds spent over the years I have not once had a bad dish or regretted a single penny paid. I have been on my own more often than I can admit. Wednesday after work. Tuesdays for lunch. Fridays after the pub. I talked to the bar staff at Fino about many things, and not all were related to their Jamón Ibérico. I met some brilliant people – I am looking at you Natalia – all deeply in love with their work and proud of their heritage. I loved being told off for not having shown up in a few months when I went on a long overseas holiday. I was the king of the basement bar. King of Piquillo Peppers. I tried all the croquettas and ate all the tuna tartar. I watched the suckling pig being cut and the pan con tomate being plated.
I remember when I brought my father and his wife to Fino and how I watched their faces when they had the perfect pork belly. I remember when me and my ex-girlfriend ignored our limited salaries and overspent without a care for tomorrow. I remember sitting there with my dear friends, terribly single but terribly happy. My brother and I spent hours at the bar once and ate through almost every item on the menu. I am not able to completely recall what we talked about but I miss him and those moments whenever he isn’t around. I remember my girlfriend’s parents from Sweden being unprepared for the joy and pleasure the food brought them. And I imagine what it would have been like to bring my mother to Fino and show her every dish. She was gone too early but I know she would have loved it very much.