If you only stumble on one backstreet restaurant this month, make it this...
Date night starts like it usually does: Lewis is foul and hangry while I spend more time concerned about where to take a photo of my outfit than I am with finding the restaurant itself. We'd decided to visit a taqueria in Bermondsey, a far cry from our usual culinary spots, and stepping off the train into an area of council estates, I'll admit I'm a little skeptical. Nonetheless, we enjoy the walk – a sharp right turn under a rail bridge and you're back in hipster territory, where street food start-ups and bars boasting home-brewed ciders inhabit the abandoned railway arches. We get to the restaurant – a small, order-at-the-bar, authentic taco joint with a counter full of Pacificos and mescal cakes – only to find that there's a private event on and they aren't taking walk-ins. Bummer, but it's one of those torrid summer evenings perfect for strolling, so we decide to explore the area for something else.
Across the way is Maltby Street Market, situated on a narrow alley between a brick wall and the loud, rumbling railway arches. Joining the two sides of the street are rows and rows of world flags and festoon lights, and down on the street, tables of people eating and laughing on mismatched chairs and wooden tables. Slotted between a timber shop and a small gin bar is Bar Tozino, a Spanish Jamon Bodega (the only one in London). And 'bodega' is such a great word for this place - the entrance is via velvet draped curtains, concealing a dimly lit bar area. Above the entrance is a window, where open shutters reveal a dusty wine cellar lit by fluorescent office lights, the smell of garlic glides through the air.
We're told to sit wherever we like, and though the restaurant looks full, we find a spot on the end of an outside table. There's no table service, so we order a bottle of Spanish wine at the bar for a refreshing £22, and it strikes me how reasonably priced the dishes are too - the most expensive is the scallops at £12. We start with a meat platter – freshly shaved Iberico ham and chorizo served with breadsticks and a Guindilla pepper. The meat is shimmering, delicate, and beautifully oily, cut through with the sharpness of the pepper.
We move on with their slow-cooked beef chilli (£8), pan con tomate (£3.50), Albondigas (£6.50) and obviously Patatas Bravas (because, you know, tapas), and though our first dish set the bar high, it just keeps getting better. The chilli is hearty, spicy and tender, served with bread for dunking it's incredibly wholesome. The pan con tomate (bread with tomato) is a Spanish classic – thick, toasted bread with a pile of sea salt, fresh garlic and a dish of oily, pureed tomato. The Patatas Bravas are just as good as they always are, but the Albondigas come through as the true highlight for me – pork and beef meatballs in a fragrant, cinnamon-y tomato sauce, with fresh bread to mop up the leftovers.
We finish our bottle of wine as the sun sets, a Spanish family at a nearby table laugh and exchange responsibility for the energetic toddler accompanying them. Everyone around is us happy, enjoying glorious food in this secluded London street in summer – it could be a backstreet in Barcelona.
I can't help but kick myself for not knowing about this place sooner. Had we been able to eat at the restaurant we had originally planned, I may never have known about Bar Tozino, so for that I count myself extremely lucky. A happy accident of the best kind – I'll be back next week.
Pan Con Tomate Recipe
- Fresh cherry tomatoes
- Maldon sea salt
- Olive oil
- Garlic clove
- Sourdough bread
Smash up the tomatoes in a pestle & mortar then add a healthy pinch of salt and a glug of olive oil. Serve with toasted sourdough, salt and garlic. 🍅