November is a miserable month, isn’t it? The sun has kicked the bucket, it’s shuffled off this mortal coil. It is no more. You get the picture. You’d have thought it bold to open a tapas bar in London when at least two great Spanish restaurants reign. The Hart brothers’ Fino and Barrafina have, for years, fed the capital’s foodies with excellent Iberico ham, croquettas, and tortillas. However, Nemanja Borjanovic and Melody Adams have decided to brave the inclement weather and open a stylish Basque tapas place in Marylebone. Whilst the forecast at Donostia is generally sunny, there will be some wet spells here and there. No matter. A little drizzle won’t ruin your evening.
With white-tiled walls and speckled marble tabletops, Donostia is modern and clinical – a long way from those Spanish dives you might remember from your gap year. But it’s not pretentious; it’s very much no frills, no fuss fun. What it might lack in Basque authenticity, it makes up for with a warm, shouty atmosphere. The owners are into their wines, and – as merchants themselves – understand the value of kind mark-ups. The list is well considered and, thankfully, isn’t vast: glasses start at £3 and bottles at £17. 90% recognisable Spanish names with a few Frenchies thrown in for good measure. The Fincas de Landaluce 2007, Crianza Rioja Alavesa (£4.50 for 125ml), with ripe dark fruit with notes of vanilla, saw us nicely through our meal. The glassware, too, is gorgeous, a big plus in my book.
The menu – divided into Picoteo, Pintxo, Cold Plates and Tapas – needs explanation. Which you don’t get. Of our stab-in-the-dark lot, the smaller plates of chorizo with tomato (£3) and croquettas with jamon (£3.50) were the fastest to be polished off. Both are the sort of thing you want to be able to recreate at home, but know you never can. Less of a success was the foie gras with walnuts & PX vinegar (£4.50), which might have fared better cold. The vinegar rather overpowered. Pea shoots here are the thing of the moment: they’re liberally sprinkled over each dish without embarrassment. “So last year”!
Of larger plates, the honey glazed quail with marinated baby courgettes (£9.50), (an unappreciated bird), most appealed. Whilst it had great flavour, the skin was gelatinous and inedible. And I’m not convinced the courgette-pairing worked to the quail’s advantage. Rib-eye steak (£18.80) was a surprise to see on the menu, and turned out to be a poor choice. By them and us. Although it had a nice char, the interior was overcooked and stringy. A sweet and refreshing if somewhat basic mixed salad with orange & hazelnuts (£4) made up for the protein onslaught. The portions aren’t generous, and the bill easily tots up, so you’d do better to sit at the kitchen-counter for a glass of wine and snack. The dessert list is short and very sweet. I enjoyed the chocolate mousse with orange zest (£4), but it was more a thick ice-cream than a deliciously smooth whip. Good for me nonetheless.
Whilst in Spain you might have a quick drink and a bite at each bar, that’s not how it works in Blighty. Going for tapas in London should be a relaxed, boozy affair. A steady drip of tasty morsels with some good wine to wash it down. Voices should grow hoarse. The bank should not be broken. Donostia fulfils these requirements, but the place is not relaxed. Staff are rushed off their feet and service is of the neck-breathing sort. When Donostia sorts out this problem, it’ll give the Harts a run for their money. Until then, don’t forget your wellies!
Donostia, 10 Seymour Place, Marylebone
£71 for two (with service)
Food: 7, Service: 6, Ambience: 8