I’m not big on seafood or red meat, so my relationship with tapas has been a tentative one over the years. I like manchego, and boquerones, and patatas bravas and tortilla, but show me an octopus or a pork cheek (what?) and I’ll likely run and hide. However, since the Great Cooking Revolution of 2009 I’ve gradually become more adventurous, so I’m a better prospect for a tapas date now than I’ve ever been. And I’d heard good things about Number 22 on Half Moon Lane, even if it does pretend it’s in Dulwich (it is a two-minute walk from Herne Hill station. It is as much in Herne Hill as a thing can be).
Anyway, it was better than I was expecting, and I would be giving it a round five stars (out of five) if I hadn’t been cold all the way through the meal. I am a naturally cold person, which is why one day I am going to go and live somewhere tropical, but I was wearing a wool dress and tights and furry boots and a scarf and I was still too cold; a problem I exacerbated when I ordered the saffron and passion fruit panna cotta for pudding, having gotten my Italian deserts mixed up (I was expecting a pannetone, and by the way, wouldn’t a saffron and passion fruit pannetone be AMAZING?). A chilled pudding is not what you want when you’re too cold.
But rewind, rewind, because I’ve left out all the good stuff. And there was lots of good stuff. The interior is halfway between a wine bar and someone’s living room, with the obligatory bad art for sale on the walls (this is such a feature of Herne Hill eateries that I would feel bereft if it weren’t there). The tables are well-spaced for such a small place, and we had a nook of our own whose only disadvantage was that we had to stand up and wave to get a waiter’s attention, so tucked-away were we. But rather that than one of my pet restaurant hates: the waiter who comes by and interrupts the conversation every few minutes to ask whether everything’s OK, as though you might not have the wit to let them know otherwise. They always seem to arrive just as I’m at the punchline of a joke. I can’t help suspecting they do it deliberately. I’d always rather too little attention from waiters than too much.
But mainly I want to talk about the food, because the food was terrific. We ordered padron peppers and chorizo and potato skewers with bread and oil to start, and then rabbit, clams, seared tuna with fennel and orange, tortilla and deep-fried goat’s cheese for the main course (unlike in traditional tapas bars, Number 22 times everything to arrive together, so they have the dishes divided into appetisers, tapas and extras), but the waitress told us the goat’s cheese was best with the bread and oil and suggested we have it alongside the appetisers rather than with the main course, which we did. I like it when the staff know better than you and politely tell you so.
All the appetisers were good, although if I had to nitpick I’d say that the bread was a bit dull (but then, is Spanish bread a thing? I don’t think it is, really), but the mains were really spectacular. The tuna was cooked in that way that proper cooks cook it, where you just wave it over the heat for a split-second, and I was nervous about eating it because I thought it would be chewy and jellific, but in fact it melted in the mouth like a pâté de foie gras, only more ethical (just). The rabbit was moist and delicious, the tortilla had exactly the right consistency, and the clams, which I only tried out of curiosity, expecting to hate them (I traditionally gag on shellfish), were completely delicious and the surprise star of the night.
It’s not cheap – our bill came to just over £80 with service, and that was without wine, although it did include a bottle of beer and a brandy, and a ginger beer, which I would heartily recommend as a non-alcoholic alternative to dessert wine – but for a special occasion it’s as good a suburban restaurant as I’ve eaten at. Just maybe go in the summer, or pack a spare jumper.