This seafood restaurant is named after the huge thurible, a hanging metal frame for burning incense, at the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. The restaurant was established by Moncho Neira in 1975 and is a vast place, spread over two floors, and mixing Catalan and Galician cuisine. It is now the flagship of a chain of seafood restaurants called Moncho’s.
The restaurant is vast, with room after room leading to further dining areas, seemingly going on forever. It actually seats just over three hundred diners at one time but feels bigger, a sprawling Gormenghast of restaurants. There are tanks of lobsters, bars, views into kitchens, side rooms, staircases and ever more rooms as you are led deeper and deeper into the place. I have no idea how many staff work here but it felt like I passed a small army of waiters just on the walk through to my table.
As you look at the menu you can nibble on a dish of pleasant olives and pickled cucumber, plain potato crisps, cheap bread rolls and, rather oddly, a plate of rock hard croutons if that should take your fancy. The menu is quite extensive, with a few meat choices as well as the expected wide range of seafood. This is not a cheap outing, with a green salad starter at €13.75, lobster cocktail starter at €33.75 and a seafood platter for two at €145.
The wine list was almost entirely Spanish and ranged from basic plonk up to and beyond a bottle of Vega Sicilia Unico at a curiously precise €432.65, yet bizarrely there were no vintages listed. This makes as much sense as going into a car showroom and being told that there are cars for sale, but you need to choose without knowing the make of the car or whether it is new or second hand. Admittedly, vintage variation in Spain’s fairly predictable climate is less dramatic than somewhere like Burgundy, but there are still significant price differences, and anyhow you want to know if you are ordering a mature wine with bottle age or a young vintage that has just been released. A Vega Sicilia Unico 2005 currently retails at €354 whereas the 2003 has a current market value of €431 and the 1982 costs €629, so you would certainly want to know which it was before you committed to a bottle, though frankly €432.65 is a pretty kindly price for just about any vintage of Unico these days. The wine list had around 110 labels and started at €22.30. Sample references were Marques de Caceres Reserva at €37.50 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for about €19, Martin Codax Organistrum Albariño at €49 compared to its retail price of €19, and the gorgeous Rioja Alta 904 2009 at €89.95 for a wine that will set you back €60 in the high street. There were just a few prestige French wines at entertainingly high prices for those daft enough to want to drink posh French wine in Spain - Mouton Rothschild 2013 at €2,225 compared to its retail price of €495 is hardly an appealing prospect for a young wine barely ready to drink, of a mediocre vintage at over four times its shop price. For the same money you could drink five bottles of fabulous Vega Sicilia Unico from this list and still have change.
I started with tuna tartare, a generous cylinder of chopped tuna mixed with spring onion and a little avocado. The seasoning was not too strong, letting the flavour of the tuna come through well, and very pleasant it was too (14/20). For the main course I opted for a seafood paella. This arrived in a large pan for display, and was then transferred to a dinner plate by the waitress. Your neighbourhood Spanish restaurant in the UK might serve its paella a bright yellow colour, which they would like you to think was due to exotic and expensive saffron but is more likely tinged with turmeric or yellow food colouring. In Catalonia paella arrives a copper colour, as this one did, coloured by the rich stock it was cooked with as well as tomato sofrito, a sauce of peppers, tomato, onions and garlic, and the cooking of the rice. In the rice were strips of tender squid, clams in their shells and some nicely cooked prawns, and a little piquillo pepper. This was a rustic and enjoyable dish (easily 14/20).
A plate of desserts was presented but I had enjoyed the paella too much to contemplate anything else. The waitress actually brought a little plate with a sample of a few anyway, but judging by the hard tuile I nibbled, the pastry section is probably not the strong point of the restaurant. Coffee was very pleasant, however. Service was friendly and my waiter even managed to rustle up a charging block and cable for my iPhone, which was going above and beyond his reasonable duties. The bill was high at €158 (£137) but that was due to some excessive fine wine indulgence. If you ordered thee courses and shared a modest bottle of wine then a more typical cost per person might be around €90 (£78), which is still not objectively cheap. The pricing clearly does not deter customers, as tables were being turned all around me even at this unfashionably early hour on a Monday night. It would be easy to be a little cynical about Botafumeiro, which definitely attracts tourists as well as locals, but I enjoyed my evening here.