Tuesday, 8 December 2009

HIX, Soho

Regular readers - and there are literally ones of them - of this blog will know that I am a great admirer of uber-chef and fellow Dorset boy Mark Hix. I've eaten at most of the restaurants with which he has been associated over the years, including actually being cooked for by the man himself in the days when he could be found knife-wielding at The Ivy, and weekly devour his column in Saturday's Independent, often trying my hand - to mixed degrees of success - at his always innovative recipes. 

I treat as authoritative his articles on ingredients, farming, fishing, provenance and locality, and have learnt a great deal on each of these from him; it is no exaggeration to say that Mark Hix's cooking and writing have shaped the way I eat today, my food tastes, likes and dislikes. Years ago, when I threw up a Hix signature dish at Rivington Grill (through, naturally, no fault of the chef's own), it felt akin to blasphemy.

I'd been excited about the prospect of eating at HIX (block capitals seems to be the accepted rendering of the name) for ages, ever since noticing by chance, walking down Brewer Street, that the site of Gary Yau's short lived haute-Japanese Aaya had been reborn as part of the burgeoning Hix empire (there are another two restaurants bearing his name, one in London, one in Lyme Regis in Dorset, as well as a consultancy gig at Brown's Hotel
). Alas for me, the opening up of HIX coincided with my opening up by a surgeon, and the dreary recuperation diet I was put on precluded any fancy-pants restauranting for a few weeks. 

I could only read, weep and salivate as reviewer after reviewer got in there first, almost all agreeing (with the notable exception of Metro's Marina O'Loughlin, who I greatly admire) that Mark had pulled off the unthinkable and opened a surefire success of a restaurant in the middle of The Worst Recession In Living Memory (TM). But, as one day surely shall the economy, I recovered, and when it came to deciding where to have a celebratory lunch there was only one choice. My glamorous friend Nina, over on business from Bermuda and no stranger to fine dining, was my lunch companion.

So that I can focus on all the good bits about HIX - and there are many - let me begin by getting a handful of really quite minor but collectively significant gripes out of the way. Firstly, booking a table at HIX was not an all-together painless experience. Three attempts to get through were aborted due to unacceptable times waiting for the call to be answered, and when I did get through I was spoken to, if not with disdain, then not with the degree of warmth which one might hope for from a person one has been kept waiting for the privilege of speaking to. It's also not nice to be told that your table - booked for 12.30 - will be needed back after two hours; I am unlikely to
want to linger for two hours over lunch, but if I am, are you really expecting to be fully-booked at 2.30 on a Monday, Mark? Really? It just felt unnecessary and ground my gears. 

Then there's the menu. For the most part it's in plain enough English - 'Atlantic prawn cocktail', 'Devilled lamb's kidneys on toast' and so on - but there's also an awful lot that needs deciphering and I thought we'd done away with that when we all started calling creme brulee burnt cream. Serious foodies - and readers of Mark's Independent column - will be fluent in the language of crubeens, cod's tongues (which, nota bene, are not exactly the tongues of cod) and slip soles, but I suspect that many diners are not and may not care to have to ask the staff to have to explain quite so much of the menu to them. I don't for a second doubt that the delightful staff would take great pleasure in doing so, but it just seems a little bit cliquey, a little bit insular, a little cleverer than thou. 

Last of the niggles is that unlike almost all other restaurants playing at this level of the game, HIX lacked anyone discernibly in charge; several (lovely) ladies welcomed us at the door and waved us off, and there were a number of suited chaps of both sexes wandering, unsmiling I noted, around the dining room ostensibly overseeing things, but if there was a maitre(sse) d' on the premises I failed to spot him. Maybe it's a deliberate thing, part of the studied informality which typified the service, but personally I like at some point during my three courses to receive a fleeting visit from someone high up in the honcho stakes just to check that I am a happy chappy; a little bit of extra love over and above the waiter's customary 'Is everything OK?'-type enquiry.

Venting over, I can now unleash the praise,and the hitherto identified quibbles notwithstanding, HIX is really very good indeed. Really, seriously good. Even the front
door is good, a Brobdingnagean slab of heavy dark wood which it took all my not-insubstantial weight to open; it's foreboding and inviting at the same time, hinting at decadence and maybe danger within. The interior's a hit too, a very New Yorky, mostly white, high-ceilinged space decorated sparsely but modishly with mobiles (not phones, though that would be fun, but the suspended variety) designed by Hix's big name artist pals.

Tables, bare wood with sturdy but comfortable leather seats, are generously spaced out around the L-shaped room and I honestly couldn't spot what I would class as a 'bad' table. Once seated, water (in fun pub counter whisky jugs) and bread - a whole, home-baked mini-loaf of it - are brought swiftly before, in another Big Apple-style gesture, the day's cuts of steak are paraded on a butcher's block at your tableside. As well as being a nice bit of salesmanship - the sight of the 1KG Porterhouse is truly mouth-watering - it's helpful to have the three cuts on offer explained, although I was a bit baffled by the surely oxymoronic 'fillet served on the bone'.

The menu, even with its scattering of obscurities, reads wonderfully; it's comfortingly similar to that at Rivington Grill - even the font is almost identical - and only slightly dearer, so the soups, salads and traiteur-type meat-treat starters are around the £8-£9 mark while mains are in the range of £14-£21 unless of course you're minded to have that Porterhouse steak at £65 for two. Contrary to what one might infer from the reverence afforded to beef, the menu is actually slightly fish-biased and this being a Hix restaurant the emphasis is on sustainability, with gurnard, silver mullet and haddock all making an appearance (although how Mark squares serving only the 'tongues' of cod, and not the rest, I'm not sure; nose-to-tailfin eating this ain't). 

Nina and I both started with soup, she the pumpkin with sage and chestnuts and game with soft poached egg for me. Both were very good, Nina's was full of flavour, brightly coloured and packed with fragrant sage, and mine was a heart-warming and filling, if slightly over-salted bowl of rich, creamy broth packed with shreds of partridge and tasty mallard.

To follow, Nina chose the beef flank, porter and oyster pie - OK yes, down the pub it would be called steak and ale pie but this is HIX, sweetie - a dark, rich stew of fibrous, tender meat in thick gravy under a golden, crackling crust topped with a solitary gratinated oyster. The lonely bivalve, whilst as bracingly fresh as being knocked off your feet by a morning wave, seemed somewhat surplus to requirements; the pie itself disappeared to approving noises from across the table.

I opted for the flat-iron steak (a thick cut from the shoulder, similar in texture to onglet) with baked bone marrow. This was the star dish of the meal, the tender steak chargrilled to black on the outside but still yielding and rare in the middle, and full of barbecue flavour. The accompanying bone marrow - one of my absolutely favourite things - was mashed up with herbs and seasoning and served piled back into a shin bone, split down the middle and hollowed out. It was a carnivore's delight, almost primal in conception but resolutely modern in delivery. A nice touch was its being presented with three mustards to choose from, English, wholegrain and - my favourite, Tewkesbury, somewhat like Dijon but cut with horseradish for extra bite. I loved it all. 

The only flat note food-wise was a side of chips, which were just, well, extremely ordinary chips. There simply wasn't room for dessert; portions at HIX are fairly huge and it's all too good to leave even a scrap of. Wanting to at least try something from the puddings list we ordered 'Julian Temperley's cider brandy & Venezuela black truffles', and a more intense whack of pure cocoa flavour has seldom passed my lips. Diners with room for more can choose from a very British selection including rice pudding, Bakewell tart and berry posset.

We drank modestly and well; we toasted our reunion and my return to health with a glass apiece of Joseph Perrier (Laurent's younger, cooler brother perhaps?) champagne, louchely served in a retro coupe, and accompanied our food with a 500ml carafe of a smooth, blackcurrant-heavy Barossa Valley Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon chosen from the excellent and reasonably priced list. France is most prevalent but fans of Spain, Italy and the New World won't be disappointed; light drinkers and those on a budget will also welcome the superb selection of wines available by the 175ml glass and carafe. 

Service throughout was generally good, the comfortable informality of the staff never tipping over into over-familiarity, but as the room filled up attentions did seem to divert slightly to other tables and we had to attract our waiter's attention in order to place our dessert order and request the bill. 

All in, the bill came to just over £50 a head which I think will work out as about the going rate here. Downstairs there's a very attractive bar area - all but empty in contrast to the buzzing restaurant but I would imagine it's a very different story by night - and had we had more time before or after lunch I would gladly have stopped in to sample some of the delights on the interestingly compiled cocktail list. There's a separate bar menu and I can easily see this becoming a very fashionable, club-like Soho staple.

HIX may be a new address on the rapidly lengthening list of Soho hot spots but there's nothing really new about it; I mean this to flatter, as HIX is a synthesis of all the very best bits of the restaurants through which Mark Hix has blazed his trail. HIX combines the mystique of The Ivy, the excellence of J. Sheekey and the fashionableness of Rivington Grill, while at the same time being unmistakeably all about Hix; at reception, in the bar and even on the menu you are reminded that the great man, as well as feeding you in his restaurant, can also sell you his books, salad dressings and souvenirs. 

It's a very well-executed enterprise and before long I can absolutely see it taking over from, or at least rivalling, The Ivy and Scott's for sheer cachet. Now that my digestion is fully functional again, and provided I can get through to book my two-hour slot at a table, I intend to revisit HIX as often as I can until the celebs and media barons take over and getting in here becomes as much of a challenge as at those, for now, more famous competitors.

HIX, 66-70 Brewer Street, London W1F 9UP Tel: 020 7292 3518
http://www.hixsoho.co.uk

Hix on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

3 comments:

  1. Why, I was there just last week, alack, only drinking in the splendid bar downstairs, where my champers was served and continually topped up in a pewter, chalice like coupe, very 'Lord of the Rings.'

    I sat with the ever jolly Fergus Henderson, so I guess that’s an endorsement?

    Nick Strangeway was there (their present bar consultant) and Claudia, doing her usual fab thing as meet/greeter.

    I owe my foodie son a dinner, I may take him there before Christmas...if he’s a good boy?

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  2. I do love that they serve the champagne in coupes, though ours were mere glass not elegant pewter! We must go for a couple of cocktails there sometime, oui? If you do take your son - lucky boy - I can highly recommend the steaks, truly superb.

    See you at Bistrotheque!

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