We each have our own private Soho. For the long of tooth it may well be Paul Raymond’s Revue Bar and the nudge nudge of sleaze or Jeffrey Bernard regaling his reprobate chums slouched across lunchtimes that never ended. Perhaps Gaston Berlemont’s French House and Muriel Belcher’s Colony Club, L’Escargot with Elena Salvoni at the helm or Victor Sassie’s goose-fattened politico haunt, The Gay Hussar. So many ghosts. Even a near contemporary of mine, Alastair Little, whose eponymous restaurant brought a blast of fresh culinary air to Frith Street in the Eighties, is no more (my tribute).
Northern-based, I’ve only had the tiniest of bit parts in the pulsating Square Mile of Sin, much sanitised these days, of course. Maybe, on a flying visit, a café au lait and croissant at Maison Bertaux before stocking up on Italian essentials at I Camisa & Son (recently granted a two year stay of execution; its drab rival around the corner, Lina Stores, has now swollen to a glossy five-strong chain). For cocktails it still has to be tiny Bar Termini on Old Compton Street. And if we ate in in Soho it would inevitably be at Andrew Edmunds in Lexington Street, an 18th century townhouse that for four decades has combined being dog-friendly with offering a remarkably affordable fine wine list, well matched with the game it regularly serves. Alas, Andrew, too, died last year at 80, another key figure in ‘Old Soho’ departed.
There were occasionally more flamboyant experiences. A random invitation, by his biographer, to the funeral of Sebastian Horsley, the ‘Last Dandy of Soho’, where to a Marc Bolan soundtrack the horse-drawn hearse delivered his heroin-ravaged body to St James’s Piccadilly, Stephen Fry delivering the eulogy.
Another time I lingered into the early hours in the Groucho Club in the company of Lembit Öpik, Liberal Democrat MP, I’m A Celebrity contestant and Cheeky Girls squeeze, and one Ron Brand, dad of Russell (whatever happened to him?).
Quo Vadis – no wriggling out of Jeremy’s eel sandwich
The Groucho Club is a homage to the wittiest of the Marx Brothers, but it was the former home of a more seismic Marx – Karl – that hosted us on a recent return to Soho. Once also a brothel, Quo Vadis in Dean Street is definitely ‘Old Soho’, launched as a restaurant in 1926, one year before L’Escargot (Camisa arrived two years later). It has enjoyed a resurgence over the last decade under the stewardship of the Hart Brothers, whose neighbouring Barrafina is definitely a standard bearer for the ‘New Soho’.
The Quo Vadis kitchen is in the hands of national treasure Jeremy Lee, whose Cooking Simply and Well, for One or Many (Fourth Estate, £30) has just won Best General Cookbook in the 2023 Guild of Food Writers Awards. I wrote about his championing of salsify here a year ago. That root vegetable wasn’t on the menu on the Monday evening we dined there, but his signature starter was – the smoked eel sandwich. I’ve tried to replicate at home several times, quite recently with in-house prepared eel from Upton Smokery in the Cotswolds, but the restaurant version was miffingly superior. At £14.50 a tranche it had to be.
Amazingly, it was pipped by the other starter we shared in the cosy, quirky dining room –the best terrine I’ve had in years. A quid cheaper, it was a master class in the charcutier’s art. Tender tiles of compressed chicken, grouted with a moist blend of ceps, savoy cabbage and bacon, accompanied by fresh figs.
The scene was set. The extended, enhanced ground floor restaurant looked a treat, as did arguably London’s most beautiful paper menu. Alas, the mains didn’t match all this level of excitement. A case of NOFOM? (never order fish on Mondays)? I’d like to think that wouldn’t apply to a place, whose rigorous standards are apparent from Jeremy’s gloriously written book, but my wife’s hake with clams dish (£32.50) was dull and over-beaned, while my skate with tartare sauce (£34.50) smelt too much of the pan and felt tired. And yes, I am allowing for skate being a fish actively benefiting from a few days’ ageing. Neither dish was done any flavours by a timid Rousette de Savoie Cru Frangy Domaine Lupin, which cost £50. Our jolly neighbours were knocking back their white, a Puligny Montrachet at thrice that price, and we were so jealous.
Ain’t no Mountain high enough?
So a certain disappointment at Dean Street’s old stager, made up for thrillingly by new arrival Mountain in Beak Street. I vaguely remember the corner site being occupied by a Byron Burgers, but there’s also a louche Soho legacy, naturally. From 1913 it was home to Murray’s Cabaret Club; in the Fifties Ruth Ellis danced in the club before murdering her husband, in the Sixties hostess Christine Keeler met Stephen Ward here before embarking on the Profumo Affair.
These days it would be a scandal not to make the pilgrimage to taste the latest manifestation of Tomos Parry’s genius. His Michelin-starred Brat in Shoreditch (former strip club premises, a theme developing) set the bar high for the ‘Welsh Wizard Who Cooks With Fire’. The restaurant name? His inspiration has always been the ‘mar y montaña’ cooking (sea and mountain inspired) along Basque and Catalan coasts. Tast Catala in Manchester nods to that same culinary philosophy through its Costa Blanca-based exec chef, Paco Pérez.
Big investment has gone into the two floors occupied by Mountain, each boasting a state of the art Gozeney wood-burning oven, losing some of the hipster vibe along the way, but the food offering has suffered no identity crisis on the evidence of our early evening walk-in. Tables are currently booked out for weeks after the metropolitan critics swooped with their ‘already a candidate for restaurant of the year’ snap judgements.
They might well prove right. We just loved everything about the place as we perched at the counter and wanted to order all of the menu. With a train to catch we settled for half a dozen treats, small plates except for a spectacular loin of fallow deer on the bone (£40) – dark char giving way to perfect saignant flesh. Like some Game of Thrones hero emerging from battle. Alongside, a squad of Parry’s signature smoked potatoes, even better than their equivalent at Yorkshire’s legendary Moorcock at Norland.
The supporting cast was equally impressive. A plate of home-cured ex-dairy beef (£12.50, fanned out wafer thin (the meat slicer is as much in evidence here as at Brat’s Shoreditch rival Manteca), then substantial chunks of raw sobrasada (£6.50), doused in honey. on their own wood-fired bread, topped with squiggles of guindilla pepper. Apparently this spicy, spreadable sausage is sourced from an organic Mallorcan farmer called Luis Cirera.
Such attention to detail is everywhere. Wines show a Noble Rot influence. Where else might you encounter that delicate North Italian white, Nosiola? At £8 a sizeable glass, it had been our welcome drink, to be followed by a 500ml carafe of a Portuguese bulk tinto that was remarkable, fruity value for £20. It handled the spice of the chorizo we ordered in envy of our neighbours on the counter because of the balloon-light flatbread they also got.
Returning another time then to dig deep into a no-compromise menu offering beef sweetbreads, tripe, turbot head and, for three or more to share (£90-£120), a whole lobster caldereta (one pot stew) that may prove to be the peak signature dish for Mountain. Aiming to scale it one day.
Finally, a satisfying foray into Fitzrovia
We were staying in the Treehouse Hotel in Langham Place, , which has a Mexican restaurant Madera on its 15th floor, where we sampled assorted seafood ceviches and organic, grass-fed carne asada served over hot lava stones. Alas, Madera won’t be accompanying Treehouse when it opens in Manchester next year; consolation, head chef at the main restaurant there will be the remarkable Mary-Ellen McTague (ex- Aumbry, Creameries and The Fat Duck).
The London hotel is opposite the BBC and John Nash’s All Saints Church on the edge of Marylebone and Fitzrovia, both exceptional districts to dine out in these days. The latter is home to the Sicilian food of Norma on Charlotte Street, which I have previously reviewed.
This time 64 Goodge Street was our destination. In its few weeks of existence it has been garnering plaudits akin to Mountain for its retro French bistro looks and menu. A new venture by the Woodhead Restaurant Group, creators of The Quality Chop House, Portland and Clipstone, it’s a handsome fallback destination for those who can’t squeeze out an advance booking for equally francophile Bouchon Racine in Farringdon (read my review) I dined in the shadow of a dark oak armoire in the intimately lit bottle green interior. I half expected Inspector to Maigret to sidle in out of the Fitzrovia dusk.
The ‘Famous Belgian’ would certainly have relished my amuse bouche, a truffled Comté gougère and my hors d’oeuvre, a duo of snail, bacon and garlic bon bons – a cute, deep-fried take on classic escargots à l’ail.
Starters were a litany of Gallicness. What to choose from soupe au pistou; Morteau sausage, walnut and Morbier tourte (a homage to my beloved Jura); scallops, lentils and beurre blanc and a rabbit Niçoise. The latter won the day and there were enough olives, capers, tomatoes and basil to justify the substitution of blander bunny for the regulation tuna.
That dish cost £16. My main was £36. Like virtually everywhere of quality in London and other cities, even with modest wine, bills are now regularly topping £100 a head for three courses. No matter, if they get the details right From another well-judged wine list, a carafe of Austrian Blaufränkisch did the trick, its black fruits and whack of acidity a perfect match for the myrtille compote that underpinned squab pigeon two ways, breast seared, leg stuffed with Lyonnaise sausage. Perhaps a substantial addition of beetroot and chanterelles tipped the dish towards excess, but chef Stuart Andrew’s menu is built on richness. Comforting in discomforting times. Let me confess then. I wish, for therapy’s sake, I’d splashed out an extra £4 and gone for the lobster vol-au-vent with a cream/brandy infused sauce Américaine.
For 2023’s critical kitchen darlings the world appears to be their lobster.