Art & Food: Whistler and Jose Pizarro at the Royal Academy of Arts

It’s been a while since I’ve had one of my Art & Food excursions into London. I’ve been to the Victoria & Albert Museum a couple of times, and recently to The Courtauld Gallery to see Van Gogh’s Portraits with my friend Annette, who was over from Italy for a long weekend. After seeing the exhibition one afternoon, we sat for a couple of hours chatting over cake and coffee, which was lovely, but it didn’t quite fit the ‘Art & Food’ category! Today was planned as such: a ticket booked mid-morning for Whistler’s Woman in White: Joanna Hifferman at the Royal Academy of Arts and when I saw there was now a branch of José Pizarro’s there, I couldn’t resist a chance to enjoy some of his famous Spanish food for lunch, so booked a table there too. The only table available was for 11.45, which even for someone who generally eats lunch and supper quite early, wasn’t ideal, but then not bad enough to miss the chance of a good lunch. Well, really it takes a lot for me to miss the chance of a good lunch. And I’m so glad I went despite the early start because it was amazing.

I’ve always liked  James McNeill Whistler’s work and when I saw there was an exhibition at the RA, I thought I might go. Then, while doing a wonderful 6-week online art history course with Hotel Alphabet, the Whistler exhibition was one of the subjects of a session, and that inspired me to get online to book a ticket. Whistler (1834-1903) was an American, born in Massachusetts, who went to Paris to study art. At the age of 25, he moved to London where he hoped to find some rich patrons; it was also here that he met model Joanna Hifferman, a young red-headed Irish woman. He lived near the docks in East London and did a series of paintings and drawings of life and people there, including Wapping, which is included in the RA’s exhibition. The painting wasn’t well-received at first, and although exhibited by the RA, they insisted the cleavage of the woman (his model Joanna) should be covered up more. Whistler was averse to sentimentality, didn’t believe that paintings should serve a narrative and was a leading proponent of ‘art for art’s sake’. The RA follows this theme in the exhibition, showing the paintings of other artists alongside Whistler’s. They may be less ’emotional’ but I find them compelling and beautiful. The first Symphony in White was rejected by the RA for being too unconventional, although there was much controversy with many ‘for’ as well as those ‘against’. Now, it is the central focus of this exhibition. Whistler’s second Symphony in White was accepted by the RA. Joanna became Whistler’s long-term lover and was an active participant in his work in other ways, helping to run the studio, contacting some of the dealers and patrons. They led a very bohemian life and although they never married, he left everything to her in his will. Sadly she died quite young before him.

Whistler’s Woman in White is a small show but I loved it and loved seeing the beautiful ‘symphony’ paintings of Joanna. There were also some beautiful seascapes, particularly from his stay in Trouville, France (where I had a fabulous holiday back in 2013 – click here). To then to go for lunch at Pizarro’s made it a perfect daytime excursion.

Jose Pizarro at the RA

Pizarro’s is on the first floor of the RA’s Burlington Gardens building. A passage connects it from the main building in Piccadilly. It was almost empty when I arrived, which I guess given the early hour of my booking wasn’t surprising. In the hour I was there, it slowly filled up until it was buzzing – not too loudly! – with happy people.

The room itself is bright and attractive and a very pleasant place to sit for lunch. The service was wonderfully efficient and friendly and I was made to feel welcome immediately. A menu came and I asked how many dishes would be right for one person – two or three? Yes my waitress said and recommended a couple she particularly liked, including the cod dish I ordered. I asked for a small bottle of sparkling water; I didn’t want to drink alcohol at lunchtime.

The food came fairly quickly with an explanation that the cod – my hot dish – would take a little longer. It was all, of course, prepared to order and actually having just a little gap suited me well.

I ordered the Pan Tomate (£5.50) more because I wanted some bread. I’m very familiar with it in tapas bars and as a favourite for breakfast in Spain. This Pan Tomate, however, was exceptional: the toasted bread so light and fluffy inside and crispy on the outside; the tomato flavourful and nicely seasoned.

I loved the sound of the Remojón Granadino (£6.50): blood orange salad, vermouth vinaigrette, olives and quail eggs. It was spectacular, the dressing wonderful, particularly on the mound of finely chopped spring onions at the centre.

Bacalao a la Llauna (£12) was a delicious dish of cod in a traditional Catalan sauce with sautéed baby spinach. The cod was perfectly cooked – moist and full of flavour; the sauce olive oil based with some roasted pepper and the lightest of cooking for the spinach.

Of course, the idea is to share tapas dishes like this, but on my own the fish made a kind of main course with the others as accompaniments. What a perfect lunch. I’d been meaning to go to a Pizarro’s restaurant for years; have passed his iconic tapas bar in Bermondsey – when it was closed! – so was delighted that at last I was tasting José’s food and it was all I’d hoped it would be. Indeed, it was so good that I just had to have dessert! It might be early in the day and I was eating far more than I normally would at this time (being more of a main meal in the evening person), but I couldn’t resist. There were a number of temptations on the dessert menu but when I saw Tarta de queso Vasca (£8) – Basque cheesecake with blueberries – I knew that had to be my choice. I remembered the fabulous cheesecake I had in San Sebastián back in 2016 at La Vina, which is famous for its cheesecake. It was indeed the best cheesecake I’d ever had! Was it perhaps a little risky to order one now in Pizarro’s and find it wasn’t the same? Of course not! It was without doubt the best cheesecake I’d had since La Vina; very similar with its gorgeous creamy texture and the cooked blueberries on this one was a fantastic addition.

I had just a single espresso (£2.75) at the end – my favourite way to end a good meal.

What a lovely day and so great to get into London to enjoy two of my favourite things – art and food! I’m definitely inspired to get back to doing this regularly again.

I’ve now brought all my past Art & Food posts into a separate category – with this new one. Apart from showing what wonderful art galleries we have in London, it also guides you to great places to eat near the galleries – or indeed inside them. Click here for more.

Pizarro’s at the RA is closed Mondays; open 11.30am – 6.00pm Tuesday to Sunday.

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A lifelong lover of good food and travel; writer and book editor

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