I declare an interest. Mark Hix, the chef behind this week's restaurant, writes a food column for our sister publication The Independent Magazine. So I'll start by telling you what's wrong with his new establishment, Hix, in London's Soho.
The menus are printed black on brown and are nigh-on impossible to read under the dim lighting. The dishwasher is in view of several tables and makes an annoying buzz when it finishes a cycle (which it does frequently). And the weird dangling-from-the-ceiling artwork based on Billy Bass and Fray Bentos tins? Hmmm.
I find detailing the provenance of every dish a little tiresome, although this practice is spread far beyond just Hix. Do I need to know that the cider brandy in the Cornish fish soup is supplied by Julian Temperley? The whole roast chicken is from Woolley Park Farm. I can tell from the price – £50 – that it's a quality bird, I don't need to know its postcode. And as for shaved Mrs Kirkham's Lancashire, let's hope it was the cheese and not Mrs Kirkham that was shaved.
But as for what's right with it? Just about everything else. The venue, latterly a Japanese restaurant called Aaya, has been transformed into a clean, calm room with a vaguely Eastern European feel: the floor is a rustic combination of wood and tile, and the bentwood chairs and lightly padded banquettes are the comfortable side of austere.
The table furniture is elegant and the menu – once I've got my eye in – reads similarly smoothly. There's a lot to choose from, 16 mains, but then Hix is an accomplished chef with a wide repertoire. His new venture features some of the "greatest hits" of his Clerkenwell and Lyme Regis restaurants – hanger steaks, roast grouse, meat and oyster pies – with an emphasis on British fare.
Mr M and I start with a couple of oysters each, just because. The Maldon Rocks (£1.95 each) are briny and fresh, but the West Mersea natives (£3.75 each) are properly dazzling. I'd eat another half-dozen, but save myself for my starter proper – partridge on toast with salsify and elderberries (£9.75). Game can be a little dry but the meat is tender as you like, a perfect match for the crisp toast and the intense savoury flavour of the berries. I want to eat it all over again, and resent the single mouthful I give Mr M. He has mixed beets with goat's cheese, water celery and pickled walnuts (£9.25). The veg are a shade too firm for my liking, but the marriage of tastes is winning.
By now the place is filling with guests eager to be first to get into the new buzz restaurant, among them a notoriously alpha-male reviewer. Hix, who until now has been keeping an eye on diners and the dishes coming out of the kitchen, moves in to guide him around the room. I earwig on the artwork explanation – it turns out that the mobiles dotted around the room's ceiling are by Damien Hirst, Gary Webb and Sarah Lucas among others, so even though they look more than a little bonkers, they have... provenance.
The fillet of gurnard with cockles and Morecambe Bay shrimps (£19.25) is wonderfully rich and complex. Mr M informs me that the mutton, kidney and oyster pie is melting with stringy- in-a-good-way mutton and a terrific pastry crust, but why – he asks – don't modern pies have sides?
Our charming waitress, when asked what the advertised potato "specials" are, describes thick slices of potato fried in butter. My idea of heaven, so I look forward to them. It turns out I'd misheard and the spuds are fried in batter (£3.95). They are, shall we say, a little denser than I'd anticipated, but delicious all the same.
The general manager goes misty-eyed about the Bramley apple pie (£6.50), and now I know why. It is not modishly tart, or deconstructed – just an exemplary pudding, with a jug of proper custard.
Yes, it's pricey. Yes, it's got teething problems. But the food is sublime and Hix has the unmistakable hum of right place, right time. Even if that is under a Brit Art mobile of a plastic fish. n
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
Hix, 66-70 Brewer Street, London W1, tel: 020 7292 3518. Lunch and dinner seven days a week. Price for two, with wine, about £120
Second helpings: More Soho seducers
1 Green's Court, London W1, tel: 020 7287 7663
This sweet, new heart-of-Soho café has been an instant hit with its authentic Beirut-style cooking and baking; it is already invariably full.
101 Dean Street, London W1, tel: 020 7437 9440
If you like noise and chaos, this authentic Soho trattoria (rammed with Italians) is a great place, serving proper Neapolitan pizza (by the metre); service, however, needs work.
17 Beak Street, London W1,tel: 020 7287 0555
In the heart of the West End – but still often a discovery for diners and reporters – this small but lavishly furnished Soho-townhouse offers Thai food that's somewhere between good and excellent.
Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2010'
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