I've never been particularly superstitious, but I did reach a point recently where I wondered if I was fated never to make it to Jose, a new tapas bar in Bermondsey from the eponymous Mr Pizarro.
First I had to miss out on being a friend's plus-one to the opening party when a course of medication I'd started caused some unpleasant and unpredictable side-effects including spontaneously passing out - never a good look when you're trying to network over patatas bravas. Then a scheduled dinner date with two pals had to be called off when first one cancelled because both his kids had the lurgy, and then the other because he had it. Jose seemed by all accounts to be under a bit of a jinx.
But thank goodness the jinx broke and, third time lucky, I finally got to experience Jose; I'm pleased to report that it was worth the wait. It's by no means original - great tapas and sherry bars are springing up all over town at a very pleasing rate - but Jose is more than just a great tapas bar, it's a great restaurant full stop, turning out some of the best food I've had of any type, anywhere, recently.
Jose occupies an attractive curve-fronted corner site on Bermondsey Street, spitting distance from Borough Market where Pizarro made his name at Brindisa. It's a tiny little place, seating probably no more than twenty at the tiled bar and at counters in the centre of the room and along the windows, with some additional standing room at a couple of up-ended sherry barrels. By day, light pours through the tall windows making the space feel bright and welcoming; as night falls and the room fills up - and boy does it fill up - it gets buzzier and more intimate.
Arriving early to bag us a seat - unsurprisingly for a casual joint like this no reservations are taken - I ordered some Manzanilla olives and salted Marcona almonds together with what would turn out to be the first of many glasses of deliciously dry, nutty Hidalgo La Gitana Manzanilla sherry. The nibbles were perfectly fine, but as soon as my date for the evening - my pal Tim Selby, sometime-TV chef and now director of a ritzy chain of music bars - arrived, we started making serious in-roads into the rest of the menu where the real excitement lies.
A plate of Iberico ham - from Manuel Maldonado, who I'm assuming to be a man who knows his pork - was good, but suffered from being sliced too thickly for our liking. While it might sound ungrateful to criticise a dish for there being too much of it, part of the joy in eating the very best jamon is in placing wafer-thin, fat-marbled slices on the tongue and letting it melt away. The flavour released by chewing was nonetheless blissful and it was a very generous serving - perhaps too generous - for £9.
Other basics however were done extremely well. Boquerones - anchovy fillets - in cava vinegar were plump and lovely. Ham and cheese croquetas divided opinion; I loved the way the crisp exterior yielded at the gentlest bite to release the creamy, bechamel filling but Tim was a little underwhelmed. Prawns with chilli and garlic on the other hand were as good as this tapas bar staple gets - huge fat prawns, bathing in the punchy oil they had been cooked in, and served with heads and tails intact so that those of us so inclined could enjoy sucking and crunching on the shells.
Where Jose really came into its own however was with some of the less-ubiquitous speciality dishes which we tried next. Morcilla de Iberico - pig's blood sausage - was a little dry itself but completely delicious when taken with a forkful of its sweet, lively accompaniment of al dente peas, broad beans and almonds. Hake with allioli was a beautifully-cooked fat, translucent, flaking piece of this tasty white fish in a perfect crisp batter, let down only by the allioli which was lacking in the stiff garlic punch one expects from mayonnaise's sexy, swarthy Spanish cousin.
Chicken livers with garlic and Fino were superb, both the livers and the sherry-based gravy (please let's just pause to absorb the beauty of that thought - sherry-based gravy) packing strong, rich flavour and addictive when piled onto crusty bread. Contrastingly and welcomely refreshing was a tomato salad with Vermouth vinegar, the multiple varieties and colours of tomato all contributing subtly different flavours each enhanced by the just-there dressing.
The stand-out dish of the night, putting the 'special' into 'Specials Board', was Iberico pluma - pork shoulder loin, served rare in thick ribbons, the silky, fondant meat's delicate flavour contrasted with salty, smoky piquillo peppers. The word I scribbled down at the time to describe it was 'revelatory', and although I hesitate to use it now for fear of sounding precious, this really was a dish unlike any I've experienced both in terms of the main ingredient and the preparation. Anyone who might be squeamish about rare pork - I wasn't, but I imagine many are - will be cured by one mouthful of this, and I sincerely hope that it graduates to the permanent menu.
We finished off with a simple, gorgeous plate of white peaches and the last of the season's strawberries drizzled with Pedro Ximenez, the sweetest, stickiest sherry more akin to a liqueur than a wine. A floral, elegant Moscatel Jorge Ordonez was a perfect match. Throughout the meal we'd also enjoyed Oloroso Matusalem from Gonzalez Byass and a crisp white 2010 Tremendus Rioja which nicely complemented the bolder dishes such as the livers and the pluma.
Service was casual, friendly, helpful and no matter how busy the place got, unhurried; we spent a good few hours eating at a leisurely pace, ordering a couple of dishes at a time, pausing to gauge our levels of satiety and ordering more accordingly, until we were ready to go pop (or fall off our stools from excessive sherry consumption). An ebullient Jose Pizarro was working both the kitchen and the room, helping his very lovely staff to ensure that everyone was having a time as great as their meal.
If our £120 bill caused us to gasp slightly it wasn't through any fault of the restaurant's; prices are very fair indeed but we should have ordered a bottle or even two of sherry rather than ordering glass after glass (after glass). You could easily eat abundantly and well at Jose for under twenty quid, including a glass of wine or sherry.
Jose is, simply, as good a tapas bar as you will find anywhere in London and indeed as good as any restaurant could want to be: it serves excellent food and wine at fair prices, the room is attractive, the staff is efficient and enthusiastic and that elusive, money-can't-buy quality - the atmosphere - is lively and beguiling. After a few false starts, I felt lucky to make it to Jose. If you go - and you should - I rather think you will too.
Jose, 104 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3UB http://joserestaurant.co.uk