Mark Hix's second London restaurant, Hix Soho, encompasses the trademark style that has made the Dorset-born chef an increasingly big player in the capital's dining scene. Tom Vaughan reports.
Mark comes up with ideas so naturally," says Kevin Gratton, head chef at Mark Hix's new eponymous restaurant in Soho. "It's all very simple food, but it's done with such confidence." With a menu of simple, inventive British cuisine - Hix's trademark grub - the endeavours in the Soho kitchen aren't aimed at reinventing the wheel, Gratton goes on to say.
But if Hix's past two decades in the kitchen haven't reinvented the wheel, they have certainly rediscovered and popularised an offshoot of it. First at Caprice Holdings and now with his solo ventures, Hix has shown what can be done by staying true to Britain and the seasons. All you need is a little creativity which, luckily for him, seems to come fairly naturally.
Located in the site formerly occupied by short-lived Japanese restaurant Aaya, 99% of ingredients at Hix Soho stay British throughout the year. A few, says Gratton, have to be imported: chocolate and vanilla, for example, or olive oil to make mayonnaise as rapeseed oil - used throughout most of the cooking - doesn't give the right consistency. While at Caprice Holdings, where Gratton worked alongside Hix for 10 years, most notably as head chef at Scott's, there were rigorous and formalised menu changes - requiring several tastings - Hix is a much more relaxed affair, with menus printed twice daily according to what is available.
About a third stays rigid and these are mostly dishes that have become synonymous with Hix's simplicity and creativity. Heaven and Earth (£8.50) is a case in point: based on a German dish called Himmel und Erde, it is simply black pudding, apple, mash potato and a mustard gravy. Other mainstays on the starter menu include the smoked salmon, which Hix smokes at home each week - 44 sides of the fish to be precise - and drops off at his restaurants. Accompaniments vary but, served in a salad with chickweed and shaved fennel, it is priced at £8.75.
It's the use of lesser-known British ingredients that makes Hix's food so instantly recognisable. At any one time you might find a host of foraged coastal foods on the menu - the alexanders that accompany the roast gurnard with cockles dish (£17.50), sea purslane when in season, or the sea buckthorn berries that are made into a posset - as well as other lesser-known leaves and herbs such as chickweed, bittercress and pennywort, or rowan berries, which come as an accompaniment to a starter of partridge on toast with water celery.
These more obscure ingredients complete the Mark Hix experience for diners, according to Gratton, who won the 2008 Menu of the Year Catey when he was working at Scott's. "They're things that you wouldn't normally eat and offer a different perspective on food," he explains. "It's very hard for the home cook to get hold of, say, coastal foraged plants, and very few people go out to collect them themselves."
The main-course menu loves its meat, especially its game. You might find roast red-legged partridge with parsnip crisps and bread sauce (£18), rabbit and crayfish stargazy pie (£19.75) or Glencoe red deer chop with bashed neeps (£19.50). Clever use of alternative cuts also features highly, such as the hanger steak with baked bone marrow (£17.50) or rabbit offal with celeriac mash and hedgehog mushrooms (£9.75).
Desserts stay seasonal, simple and very British. There's cherry bakewell pudding made with home-made cherry jam (£6.75), that sea buckthorn berry posset (£6.75) and steamed treacle sponge with custard for two (£11.50).
And, true to the authenticity Hix instils in his menus, diners have the option of finishing their meal with that endangered British peculiarity - a savoury - the traditional and, usually, salty final course of a formal meal. Offerings include herring milts on toast with capers and parsley (£7.25) or angels on horsebacks - oysters wrapped in bacon (£7.25).
Since parting ways with Caprice Holdings, the profile of Hix's gutsy, nostalgic British grub has grown and grown. What he continues to show, with an acumen exceeding most of his peers, is that we are a country blessed with outstanding produce - all British chefs need is a little creativity.
Hix Soho,66-70 Brewer Street, London W1F 9TR
Tel: 020 7292 3518
WHAT'S ON THE MENU
- Ox tongue with mixed beets and horseradish, £8.25
- Cauliflower soup with Cashel Blue and hazelnuts, £6.75
- Cornish shellfish soup with Julian Temperley's cider brandy, £7.25
- Webster's fish fingers with chips and mushy peas, £12.50
- Blythburgh pork chop with cockles and laverbread, £16.95
- Roast chicken salad with chestnuts, watercress and shallots, £15.75
- Beef flank, porter and oyster pie, £15.50
- Ground rib steak with Chop House sauce, £13.75
- Kingston Black and blackberry jelly with vanilla ice-cream, £7.50
- Baked egg custard with garibaldi, £6.75
- Shot of Beefeater sloe gin jelly, £3