As drug fiends usually know, peyote is a Mexican cactus with hallucinogenic properties; the visions it conjures are so strong that a religious cult once sprang up to worship it. And a pretty hefty restaurant cult has appeared in the UK that worships simple Mexican cuisine.
A posse of American Tex-Mex restaurants in the 1980s brought us our first tastes of tortillas and quesadillas, chipotle and guacamole, and that easily resistible earthy sludge that men called refried beans. In 2006, Thomasina Miers’ Wahaca chain in Covent Garden introduced London to Mexican street food as if it was a toothsome delicacy. Cantina Laredo in St Martin’s Lane surprised many with its sophistication. La Bodega Negra in Moor Street has recently acquired a sister restaurant in Shoreditch. And Arjun Waney, the chap who, alongside Rainer Becker, gave the world the posh-Japanese Zuma and Roka restaurants, has now linked up with Eduardo García of the screamingly trendy Maximo Bistrot in Mexico City, to open Peyote in the heart of Mayfair.
It doesn’t seem right, somehow. Cork Street, that super-respectable shrine to the modern international art market, is no place to find genuine mezcal or real tacos filled with chicken breast and soured cream, is it? I’d sooner try Exmouth Market or Dalston Junction. But what do I know? Street-level food at penthouse prices isn’t a new phenomenon.
We went along and the early signs were good. Peyote sits among its posh and gleaming gallery neighbours, as a bright and welcoming presence. In the entrance lobby, two extremely pretty girls take your coats and flirt like mad. You could be entering a louche members-only club where the waitresses will at some point dress as fluffy animals.
In the restaurant itself, two design concepts – earthy and sophisticated – seem to wrestle for mastery. Inset into one wall is a stark display of skulls. It could be a top-range jewellers. The facing wall, by contrast, is covered in pale-green suede, and the banquette below was adobe-brick brown, for that you’re-in-Mexico touch. A cat’s cradle of lighting flexes hangs in festoons from the ceiling and ends in woven-hemp lampshades. Very authentic – so why spoil it with the thump of Euro-house music, that grew in the background all through our meal?
The menu offers a procession of familiar dishes, with slightly adventurous ingredients. Cactus salad, a kind of Mexican Caesar, involved some green-pepper-like cactus shards (tasty and, thankfully, spike-free) in a dressing of chardonnay vinegar, olive oil and habanero chilli that catches the back of your throat like a liquid piranha. Tasty roundels of squid came with aioli and jalapeño sauce. A fine guacamole was covered with crumbly cheese and accompanied by four dips – Serrano chilli, garlic and onion, tomatillo, and the classic tomato-garlic-chilli-ground-together molcajete. Ceviche of sea bass, where the fish is marinated in lime, lemon and carrot juice, stung the tongue on entry and gave me acid-tinged mal de gut later on, but was a bracing first course...
Marina, our lovely and enthusiastic waitress, encouraged us to try something from every course (ceviche, laminados, tostados, tacos, quesadillas) before the main one, but we declined since, as far as I could see, the only difference between a Taco Hongos and a Quesadilla Hongos was cheese. And the fact that the taco hongos cost £7.50 – for mushrooms in cornbread! But as we negotiated our way round this cornucopia of Mexicana, issues of cost and value kept rearing their heads.
Our Cochonita Pibil taco was a nice little mini-dish, in which the pork had been cooked in a banana leaf for 14 hours and served with red pickled onion. It was sweet and aromatic, but hardly worth £9, any more than the cactus salad had been. By the time we reached the main courses – Chilean sea bass £24, rib-eye steak £29, veal chop £38 – we began to think the owners were having a laugh. Luckily the baby chicken (£19) was excellent, simply roasted, tender and juicy, smacked round the head with an onion jalapeno salsa. My lamb chops (£24) had been marinated overnight in chilli, tequila, tomatoes and thyme, then chargrilled and served, medium-rare and rocking with flavours. Side-order potatoes arrived in ajillo sauce with chillis and cream which was fine, whereas a side-order of black beans resembled something excavated from a Nordic peat bog, and tasted of earth and ashes. A perfunctory pudding of crème caramel with whisky and a pistachio biscuit (and, amazingly, no chilli in it) rounded off a meal of spicy Mexican bits’n’pieces and nicely slow-cooked Spanish-style main courses, in which the only signs of real imagination were in the all-too-authentic Mayfair pricing.
Peyote, 13 Cork Street, Mayfair London W1 (020-7409 1300). Around £150 for two, with cocktails and wine