Cordy House, 95 Curtain Road, Shoreditch. EC2A 3BSP www.sagardi.co.uk
A friend of mine has a simple rule when choosing a restaurant,’never eat in a place where the staff are wearing headsets” he advises. And of course the first thing I notice, ducking out of the freezing wind into the warm embrace of Sagardi, are the headsets the staff are wearing. Warning, warning Dr Smith.
The chef also has a headset, I can see this because at Sagardi the cooking is done over a classic Basque charcoal grill set close to the door. Basque cooking is the antithesis of the fancy astronomy gastronomy that made El Bulli famous, it’s in fact more down to earth than a snake in a ditch with just about everything grilled.
And what they love to grill in the Basque region is meat and fish. One of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had was at Elkano west of San Sebastian where they cook shoals of turbot over oak charcoal, with only salt and olive oil as seasoning.
Sagardi has taken that Basque grill and spread the word with a chain of restaurants that began in Barcelona eighteen years ago. This is their thirtieth, along with Sagardis in Barcelona, Madrid, Valencia and Seville in Spain, Porto in Portugal, Mexico City and Buenos Aires. There are none in the Basque region though, presumably down to the coals/Newcastle argument.
They all look the same in essence, large areas, wooden tables like butcher’s blocks (with uneven areas that can spill the drink of the unwary), the grill plus a pinxto bar and butcher’s shop at the front.
I rather like the feel of the place and the way it manages to stay cosy despite being big. On this weeknight it has far more men than women eating and most of them are clearly lower pay-grade City boys hiding their ties in their pockets for a night out, so there’s a bit of blokey noise too. But that’s okay.
I do know the steaks here are supposed to be extra special. More well hung than a hedge fund manager and unusually, outside of the Basque region anyway, cut from milk cows.
First though we eat black pudding; soft, crumbly, moist and more-ish Biskay black pudding, then some gooey, crispy croquettes with plenty of ham in them, topped of with plates of impossibly sweet grilled red piquillo peppers, all washed down with one of the 18 gin tonicas that Sardari make a thing of. It’s all rather good and I suddenly feel an urge to start shouting along with the City boys, but fight it down.
However, you can’t help shout a bit when the steak arrives. We’ve gone for Ciderhouse (the Basque cider makers would swap cider for steak with the farmers, hence the name).
This is one of the Txuleton steaks which are on the bone rib-eye steaks cut, as mentioned, from 8-16 year old dairy cattle from Galicia. Although some restaurants are rumoured to cheat a bit and use cows who’ve only spent a few years in the area, having started life in Poland. The same semi-scam that plagues Parma ham production incidentally, with pigs from Holland’finished off’ in the area.
Anyway they are incredibly marbled steaks with a yellow fat around the meat and they are highly prized and rightly so. You see them cooked slowly on the grill covered in a storm drift of rock salt to draw moisture to the surface, then sliced before being brought to table, an angry red, deeply flavoured, meat with beautiful slippery, fast dissolving fats.
We leaven this heart stopper with lettuce from Sagardi’s own Spanish suppliers dressed with the kind of perfect oil and vinegar mix that makes me want to dunk some cheese into it.
Potato wedges help prevent us from greedily eating the meat too quickly, as do tasty bites of grilled artichokes with Iberian cured ham. Cider served in the classic way, poured from height to give it fizz, washes it all down.
It’s all very good, I rarely order steak in restaurants because it rarely excites me, but this is the meat bomb. We order some grilled sea bass too, because I want to see if chef can grill delicately as well. He can and it’s also a treat, the skin crisp and the flesh flaking and iridescent with oil.
In something of a meat coma I order a dessert that I can’t recall the name of, but which was a kind of sweet bread with a nicely tart sheep’s milk yoghurt. A glass of sweet white dessert wine helped that down.
Now the fact is that none of this comes remotely cheap; the lettuce was nine quid on its own and that’s a lot of money for a leaf, even if the dressing was perfect. The meats are priced by weight, and you will draw breath sharply when you check out the menu.
However, the meat is excellent and the other dishes pretty good too. If you’ve got the cash to splash, then this is a place to do it and while the purists may carp I think Sagardi cheerfully proves that my friend’s walkie-talkie rule isn’t always right. Over and out.