Floridita, London W1

Hot music, fat cigars, beautiful people and Latin-influenced cuisine: Floridita, Terence Conran's latest venture, brings a fun slice of Cuban nightlife to London
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

What is Sir Terence Conran on? To my count, he has done it six times in the past year or so, and this at the tender age of 73. Now with no less than 32 restaurants under his belt, Sir T seems to be taking some form of gastronomic Viagra.

What is Sir Terence Conran on? To my count, he has done it six times in the past year or so, and this at the tender age of 73. Now with no less than 32 restaurants under his belt, Sir T seems to be taking some form of gastronomic Viagra.

Late in 2003, he opened the French-driven Plateau in Canary Wharf, following it this year with the Paternoster Chop House in the City and, with son Tom in command, the recently reborn Bluebird Dining Rooms featuring staunchly British cooking from the talented Mark Broadbent. But the Conran Group's most ambitious project by far has been the revamping of its Soho mega-restaurant, Mezzo, into a self-contained Latin quarter, comprising three different operations. On the ground floor is Meza, a sprawling, pubby Spanish tapas restaurant. Next door is La Casa del Habano, a cigar lounge serving serious cocktails and token snacks. And downstairs is Floridita, the happiest kingdom of them all. It's an all-singing, all-dancing, all-drinking, all-smoking, Cubanesque supper club that seats close to 250 people.

Like La Casa del Habano, Floridita is a joint venture between Conran and Havana Holdings (which is working in partnership with the Cuban government to help promote the country's culture abroad), and is inspired by Ernest Hemingway's favourite Havana bar, the legendary El Floridita.

I waft down the spiral staircase into a 1960s Bond film set that positively glows in tones of red, cream and black. Slinky women and groomed men sip daiquiris at the bar as a Cuban salsa band (Musica Floridita) shake their stuff on a little stage. There are fat cigars, skinny women in backless dresses, lots of bling and lots of detail, right down to cigar-length ash trays designed by Sebastian Conran.

Seating choices are endless: deeply padded circular booths in front of the stage; tables in a raised dining area behind sheer curtains; more tables near the crystal-blinged DJ booth. The place is jumping with energy. Even my chair has a self-correcting swivel for those who have one too many of the range of original El Floridita daiquiris recreated by bar maestro Nick Strangeway.

Cuba doesn't have the world's most exciting cuisine, being based on plantains, yams and black beans out of necessity more than desire, so chef Andrew Rose has extended the brief to create a menu that includes South American, Caribbean and Spanish influences. Thus there are Caesar salads with Ortiz anchovies, piquillo peppers stuffed with cheese and anchovy, and chargrilled Argentinian rib-eyes.

Ceviche (marinated raw fish) is oft-abused, usually ending up as sodden, tasteless bits of blotting paper in a sharp, salty dressing. Floridita's snapper ceviche is finely sliced and subtly dressed in lightly sweet coconut milk and lime, with a scattering of fresh tomato, chicory and rocket (£7). Presented in the style of carpaccio, it has just the right balance of sweet, salty and sour.

Adding to the decadent ambience, Floridita flies in regular shipments of live langosta or spiny lobsters from Cuba. Half a chargrilled lobster (£11.50) flavoured with garlic and parsley butter is a no-fuss treat, lightly smoky from the grill, the meat sea-sweet and bouncy. No picks and axes are available, however, to get through the shell into the sweet leg meat. Could someone please put them on the "must get Sebastian to design that" list?

Spit-roasted suckling pig (£17.50) sounds very Cubano but this little piggy probably didn't run all the way from Havana. It is deliciously pale, milky, sweet, nutty and refined, thickly sliced from a round that even sports crackling. There is a hint of oregano, the scent of garlic, and a simple bed of soft white rice.

A bottle of Francois Raquillet 2001 Les Veleys Mercurey (£33) from the intelligent New World meets Old World wine list is just as soft and supple as the pork. Meatballs stuffed with quails' eggs (£15) are like firm, dry Scotch eggs although with not much joy to them. Staff do not yet know which side is up, talking us into side orders of black beans and rice (when rice comes with the pork) and wilted spinach (when spinach comes with the meatballs).

If you want to eat, go early; if you want to drink and dance, go late. The first sittings get only one 20-minute set of live music, and tonight there are big dining tables on the dance floor so everyone stays chair-bound. Cigar menus and boxes come out to play, the boys light up, the DJ spins another sultry Cuban remix, and the girls play with a soufflé glacé, something last seen back in the days of the chicken brick. Puds seem a bit too Anglo-French to be interesting, but some billiard balls of orange-flower doughnuts (£6.50) are cute, served with smooth Havana Club-and-raisin ice cream.

If you want the real Cuba, stay home and read Pedro Gutierrez's explicit, desperate and proud Dirty Havana Trilogy. Floridita is chocolate-box Cuba, glossed up for genteel consumption. But it is an instant hit, because it is a lot of fun. London has several good, classy, party-all-night palaces, but now we have one you can visit because of the food, rather than in spite of it.

14 Floridita 100 Wardour Street, London W1, tel: 020 7314 4000. Open Mon to Sat 5.30pm to late. Around £115 for dinner for two, including wine and service

Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 ok 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets

Second helpings: More live music

Pizza Express Jazz Club 10 Dean Street, London W1, tel: 020 7439 8722 Instead of extra anchovy with your Soho pizza (olive and garlic with rocket and Parmesan) or Siciliana (artichoke, anchovy, ham, olive and garlic), you get the added bonus of seeing some of the world's finest jazz musicians. You want Van Morrison, Diana Krall, Roy Haynes and Scott Hamilton or Jamie Cullum with that?

The Wardrobe 6 St Peters Buildings, St Peters Square, Leeds, tel: 0113 383 8800 Standing next to the Leeds Playhouse Theatre, this building used to house the theatre costumes. Now it is home to Leeds' jazz, blues and world-music fans who come to hear artists such as Blue Note legend Sam Rivers and New York guitarist and singer Joel Harrison. There is a well-stocked bar and an open-plan restaurant that does everything from pressed duck terrine and tapas to sausages with bubble and squeak.

Venue on the Roof Cambridge Arts Theatre, 4th Floor, 6 St Edwards Passage, Cambridge, tel: 01223 367 333 The easy-going, friendly Venue restaurant has done a take-over and make-over on the fourth floor of the CAT, with live jazz on Saturday nights. A global menu with an emphasis on organic and free-range produce includes pan-fried squid with halloumi, roast cod with herb risotto and grilled marlin with Thai broth.

Comments