Kopapa, 32-34 Monmouth Street, London WC2
Saturday 08 January 2011
Looking at the annual best restaurant round-ups, there's a striking amount of crossover, with the same restaurants serving versions of the same kind of food, appearing on lists produced by everyone from heavy-hitting critics to obscure bloggers. Clearly the food scene is subject to fashion, and we supposedly independent commentators are as easily seduced by new trends as fashion editors looking for the new black.
The small plate, shared tapas-style, was the little black dress of 2010, and the Josper charcoal grill dominated the autumn/ winter season, turning out impeccably seared hunks of protein at Hawksmoor, Les Deux Salons and the Savoy Grill. But after a run of new openings all serving variations on the same back-to-basics theme, we start to crave something different, just as fashion editors grow tired of tasteful neutrals.
So the timing of a new opening from fusion king Peter Gordon couldn't be more perfect. Often imitated, never bettered, the New Zealander's eclectic style, pioneered at The Sugar Club, blows apart the tasteful conventions, bringing together ingredients and techniques from around the world in revelatory combinations. In the wrong hands, this approach can be disastrous – the culinary equivalent of sitting through a stranger's gap year photos. But in the hands of Gordon and his team, the results are always interesting, and often thrilling.
Pitched somewhere between Gordon's existing London restaurants, The Providores and Tapa Room, Kopapa is an all-day café that trades up to a restaurant for lunch and dinner. It's usefully situated, just off Seven Dials, an area still preening itself after the opening of the warmly received new Hawksmoor.
If Hawksmoor is the cool, successful older brother in the new Covent Garden family, Kopapa is the eccentric art student cousin who rocks up, complete with facial piercings, to keep things edgy. The neutral, brasserie-style decor, with tessellated tile floor and bare black tables, is dominated by wilfully ugly wall coverings, which ripple ominously like black corrugated iron. The effect is of sitting in a closed hawkers' market, and as my guest Frank Skinner said, "I associate closed shutters with disappointment".
Frank's initial scepticism melted at the first sip of his cocktail, a wake-up call to the taste buds which combined guava, nutmeg and lemon juice in a weird salty-fruity combo that was surprisingly addictive. The food menu conforms to contemporary orthodoxy by offering quick bites and small plates (dubbed "ko-tapas"), though they are far from orthodox; the more outré offerings include chickpea battered lambs brains, and pork, chilli, coconut and gapi salad.
The starters and mains take us into what David Sedaris calls "15-word entrée" territory, each dish sweeping exhilaratingly across continents like a gastronomic Google Earth.
To list the ingredients of everything we tried would consume the rest of my allotted word count, so in summary, our meal supplied many vivid, original moments, while never quite coming together as a dining experience. Highlights included the inevitable laksa – smoked coconut and tamarind – which flooded the palate with successive waves of flavour: sour, smoky then chilli hot; a welcome reminder of the Sugar Club cookbook-inspired laksa fever that gripped fashionable dinner tables in the late Nineties. Equally punchy was the partnership of smoked Dutch eel, in a sweet, mirin-style dressing, with cold green tea noodles.
A hunk of Middle White pork belly, the crackling so crisp that Frank had to call for a sharper knife, didn't benefit from being paired with almond skordalia rather than conventional mashed potato, and the impact of my own miso-cured Norwegian cod was tempered by its similarity to that eel starter. But a black sesame brûlée, with black sesame molasses, was fantastic; a delicate, dramatic reinvention of a flavour normally only encountered in Chinese pastries.
It was only with some effort that we managed to stretch our evening out to a full-length dinner, so keen were the young waiters to hurry us through our meal. Perhaps "Kopapa" is Maori for "get a bloody move on". The rhythms of the place seem set for a rushed pre-theatre meal, and there's something distinctly studenty and no-frills about it – with no cloakroom, we had to share our small table with a mound of coats and Christmas shopping.
"It feels a bit like a gourmet evening at All Bar One," was Frank's bewildered conclusion. Still, Kopapa may not be beautiful, and it may not be particularly on-trend, but there's something informal and youthful about the place which sets it apart from all the tasteful new arrivals. And it's heartening to see Peter Gordon opting to stay small and interesting rather than going corporate. If he can smooth out the clunky service, and make the room feel as inviting as the food, Kopapa should make it on to a few best-of-the-year lists in 12 months' time.
Kopapa, 32-34 Monmouth Street, London WC2 (020-7240 6076)
Around £50 a head for three courses, including wine and service
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"
Side Orders: Fab fusion
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Try the Catalan version of Liverpudlian Scouse (£5.95), or oxtail and horseradish cream (£4.50) at the UK's first Catalonian fusion deli.
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