Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Mar i Terra

What makes a good neighbourhood restaurant? Good food; a reliable, inexpensive wine list; prices that don’t scare the horses when you don’t feel like cooking. All of these are vital to anywhere with aspirations of becoming a local favourite, beloved in the hearts of young mothers and twenty-somethings alike, and all are relatively easy to achieve with a modicum of common sense and a slice of luck when installing a chef who’ll command more local attention than the deficiencies of the rubbish collection. The crucial ingredient, though – the X-factor, if such a phrase didn’t immediately conjure images of spangled wastrels screeching ‘80s ballads at a high-waisted fop – is the proprietor. As influential as the chef patron or maitre-d’ might be in a Michelin-starred establishment, in a local restaurant the owner makes or breaks his restaurant’s success. In the best local restaurants – those places locals treat as their own living rooms – the owner is a godfather to the young, a son of the old, a confessor to the troubled and a sage to the terminally insecure. His is the role of the rural landlord: focus of the community, fountain of gossip and provider of sustenance every night of the week.

Mar i Terra is begging to be just such a place: tucked away at the end of an unprepossessing street in the bowels of the Blackfriars Road, it offers the best Spanish food I’ve had in Britain, an excellent wine list – complete with deeply idiosyncratic tasting notes – and a delightful walled garden, albeit directly under the railway bridge, for lazy summer evenings when it’s too hot to cook. All this sets up Mar i Terra for a triumphant entry to the pantheon of neighbourhood gems, but for one potentially explosive factor: the landlord.

I use the term advisedly: this is a highly personal restaurant, on the model of the old country pub, where the proprietor is king and his customers merely supplicants at the table of his generosity. Never mind that customers are paying, the restaurant is his domain, watched imperiously from the safety of the bar, beyond which he will deign to come only when his territory is threatened. On our first visit, a warm Friday evening when tapas in the garden seemed ideal, our host seemed jovially, almost amusingly, grumpy. “Sit there and wait,” he said before I’d drawn breath, “I’ll be there in a moment”. “If you order Sangria, I’ll throw you out,” he added. Not wanting to jeopardise our dinner, we looked at the wine list, remarking immediately at several vintages of Viña Tondonia: “overrated, I wouldn’t have that” was his only response. His comment inspired many a riposte, but hunger – and the Blonde’s hand poised to cuff me round the head if I ventured a retort – overrode my tongue and we ordered instead a bottle of Manzanilla and settled at a table in the garden.

My concerns at the individuality of our host faded away as the food began to arrive: a salad of fricassée and manchego, chicken livers, braised lentils and chorizo and a delicate roasted quail all impressed mightily, and we ate for almost two hours, ordering more plates as we finished each dish and creating a substantial pile of drained Manzanilla bottles by our side. Pacified – and indeed exhilarated – by this display of technical skill from the kitchen, on our way out I shook our landlord’s hand, thanking for a tremendous meal: my intention, of course, to ensure my welcome on the next occasion by our apparently irascible host. We were invited to stay for a digestif, which we accepted with pleasure, wondering if, despite early appearances, we’d found the grail of local restaurants. Half an hour and a couple of brandies later, we stepped into the night – and the twenty-nine steps to my front door – with words of high praise for our newest discovery.

Our original suspicions, though, were confirmed on our next visit, with the smallest of incidents removing any pleasure we’d found in yet another tremendous meal. We’d again ventured in late on a Friday evening, three of us this time, as we were joined by the Recanted Vegetarian, and once again enjoyed a meal better than any this side of Barcelona. It had reached 11 o’clock as we paid our bill, and we were finishing our Rioja with some ethereally good jamón Serrano. The waiters milled around us collecting the last of others’ plates and glasses as we contentedly sipped at the last of our wine, reflecting on our genius in finding such a gem of a local restaurant.

It was then that we were joined by our host: “You need to finish up. You need to finish your drinks and be on your way…now”. This last word was aimed with such vitriolic ferocity that all three of us leapt from our seats, abandoning our wine and scuttling back through the restaurant to the street outside. Less than a minute previously, we had been sitting contentedly in the garden at the end of an excellent meal; now, we were on the street without so much as a thank you and good night. It might have been a small incident, frustration overflowing at the end of a long day, but for us it coloured all too strongly our memories of the evening.

It is on such small niceties that our memories of restaurants turn: the legacy of an excellent meal can too easily be spoilt by a misplaced comment, or by the proprietorial arrogance of an owner who forgets that his reputation, and his livelihood, depends on those customers to whom he is so extraordinarily rude. Richie Benaud famously said that cricket captaincy was 90% skill and 10% luck, but only a fool would try it without that 10%; the key to a successful restaurant may be only 10% humanity, but without it I’d rather eat at home.

Mar i Terra
14 Gambia Street, Waterloo, SE1 0XH
020 7928 7628

Food: 8
Drink: 7
Service: 7 (staff); 3 (landlord)
Atmosphere: 6
Total: 26

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