Surprised, Delighted, and Impressed at Bravas Tapas

by Chikashi

For a long overdue boys’ gossip session, we recently lunched at Bravas Tapas, St. Katherine Docks in East Smithfield. I’m trying to come up with an excuse to return.

Victor Garvey is the head chef and a co-founder of Bravas Tapas. Victor is an affable American who lived in Barcelona and then cut his teeth in the Basque kitchens at the storied Akelaŕe and Mugaritz in San Sebastián. An American whipping up Basque dishes in London: if you are struggling to get your head around that concept, stop immediately. Never mind such details, just head over there, eat and then see if any of it matters. The gossiping boys’ consensus was that it’s an asset to have Victor serving good food in London.

St. Katherine Docks is one of those areas in London that were ‘repurposed’ by property developers in recent years. Like Shad Thames and other pockets in London, it reeks of recent development even if some of the buildings may have some history. By that, I mean that the area is packed with chain restaurants, bars, pubs and shops that you see all over the place. It was the first time that I visited St. Katherine Docks, and my first impression was, same-crap-different-neighbourhood (‘SCDN’). From a commercial standpoint, the location choice made by Victor and his business partner Bal Thind was a stroke of genius because the area has excellent footfall given its strategic location. What that means for diners is that it would be prudent to book your table in advance.

Bravas Tapas is emphatically not SCDN. It’s a one-off. In this digital age, it’s difficult to feel as though you discovered a place, whether it’s a shop, restaurant, seedy cafe, a pretty square, whatever. In a way, the information overflow has robbed us of the sense of discovery. (Ironically, I may be contributing in a small way to this phenomenon.) There is no shortage of Interwebz commentaries on Bravas Tapas. However, given that it physically exists in the midst of all the SCDN establishments, it felt like a discovery when we walked in. (Well, to be completely honest, we had no idea where in St Katherine Docks the restaurant was, so it took us a little while to orient ourselves and actually find it, which probably enhanced the sense of discovery… You do know how boys hate to ask strangers for directions, don’t you?)

When you are there, I recommend that you do what we did: don’t look at the menu, just leave it all up to Victor, including drinks. To be precise, the idea was Victor’s not ours, but the result is equally delightful.

As we waited for a variety of dishes to appear, we nibbled on surprisingly good jamón ibérico. When the helpful staff brought them out, they explained what the dish is made of. Some of the combinations made me think, ‘That doesn’t sound like it’s going to work,’ only for the thought to vanish once the food entered my mouth. It’s a fabulous way to be proven wrong.

One notable surprise for me was the gazpacho. It’s virtually impossible to find decent tomatoes in northern Europe (my pet peeve), so I tend to cringe whenever someone mentions gazpacho. You’ll see that it is poured into the sideway claret glass at the table. When you have it, you will understand why Victor has chosen to pour it at the table although I found that the reclining glass distracts from the soup. The gazpacho took me by surprise. It was lovely.

Victor brought over a couple of dishes from Amaru, the adjacent Japanese-Peruvian (‘Nikkei’ in a more fashionable parlance) restaurant that he and Thind started earlier this year. I understand that Victor had a stint at Park Hyatt in Tokyo during which time he picked up a few ideas from the streets of Tokyo. I suppose that fusing some of that with Spanish bits would put one on a path to the Japanese-Peruvian realm. The result? They reminded me of some of the interesting dishes that Nobu used to serve before they became a global franchise that one cannot seem to avoid in big cities and descended into SCDN hell, serving heavy-handed concoctions in overdesigned venues. A separate visit to Amaru is in order.

The pink bubbly went splendidly with the diverse food. In hindsight, it was the ideal choice. Of course, Victor had the courses in his head so he could choose the right tipple for us before we even realised it.

One inevitable question is whether Victor’s creations are authentic Basque. (To ask a similar question about the Japanese-Peruvian seems somewhat misguided.) To be honest, I haven’t a clue. And, I don’t care either because it’s good food.

I did not take any photos of the food because the light at our table would not have allowed me to take decent photos using my phone, but here’s Victor in action:

Bravas Tapas and Amaru are located at Ivory House, St. Katherine Docks, East Smithfield, London E1W 1AT.