Acclaimed wine writers and suppliers Dan Keeling and Mark Andrew have taken over the former site of the Gay Hussar for their second restaurant. Tom Vaughan speaks to head chef Alex Jackson.
It goes without saying that anywhere owned by wine writer Dan Keeling and master of wine Mark Andrew – founders of Noble Rot magazine and wine suppliers Keeling, Andrew & Co – will be home to a knockout wine list. But, as at their first restaurant in London's Bloomsbury, which opened in 2015, the kitchen's task at Noble Rot Soho is to ensure that food gets equal billing.
For that, the duo have turned to Alex Jackson – formerly chef-patron of Sardine in Hoxton, which was an unfortunate early casualty of lockdown, having closed in June – with Stephen Harris of Seasalter's the Sportsman again serving as executive chef. The solution has been to lean on both Jackson's own career behind the stove and the glory years of iconic restaurant Gay Hussar, which occupied the site for 65 years before closing in 2018. "I've had my hand in Southern French cooking for the last four years [at Sardine]," says Jackson. "But the idea was to also give some nods to the site's Hungarian roots."
The standout dish at present is less of a subtle nod to Hungarian cuisine and more of a full-on homage: a main of Swaledale beef shin goulash ‘Gay Hussar' (£20). Originally included on the menu as a fun salute to the site's celebrated former occupants (the Hussar was a favourite of journalists, writers and politicians throughout its seven decades), it has proved immensely popular since the restaurant's launch in September, even if it isn't completely authentic. "In Hungary it is absolutely forbidden to put cream in a goulash, but we do, so apologies to any Hungarians who order it," says Jackson. Packed full of caraway and Hungarian paprika – unsmoked and much sweeter than its Spanish equivalent – it is served with crushed new potatoes.
From Hungary, the menu then takes a hop across central Eastern Europe with a dish of roast chicken, morels and vin jaune with riz au pilaf (£70, for two to three people). A classic dish from the Swiss Alps, traditionally the chicken is jointed and cooked, but Jackson spatchcocks the bird and roasts it whole, then makes a sauce of shallots, vin jaune and chicken stock, finished with dried morels and lashings of cream. "It is what it is! Massive vats of creamy sauce underneath it, which is the traditional way of having it."
The two mains offer two very distinct regional dishes, but among the starters, cuisines merge as east and west Europe collide. "There's definitely some shared heritage between French country cooking and Hungarian cooking," says Jackson, who cites George Lang's 1971 cookbook The Cuisine of Hungary as a big influence on the menu. In it, a recipe for a cheese doughnut immediately caught his eye and inspired a starter of choux bun, duck liver parfait and Tokaji jelly (£3 each). "I thought it'd fit well – it's very French with the choux pastry and parfait, but also a Hungarian thing to do as well." It is a sweet, rich, little pastry bomb that some customers have even been known to order for dessert. "Respect from the kitchen when one of those orders comes through," says Jackson.
There's definitely some shared heritage between French country cooking and Hungarian cooking
Another east-meets-west starter is the game-stuffed cabbage (£10). At Sardine, Jackson cooked a similar dish called chou farci with crème fraîche. "As a dish it is not exclusively French; it's pan-European, depending on the approach," he says. At Noble Rot Soho, Jackson instead takes inspiration from his Polish wife's grandmother's cooking. Small cabbage rolls stuffed with pheasant, grouse, pork mince and mushroom rice, simmered in game stock, are finished with a dollop of crème fraîche and shaved chestnuts.
For dessert, an Armagnac baba with whipped cream (£10) showcases the skills of Keeling, Andrew & Co. A standard baba soaked in an Armagnac syrup, diners can choose to have a specially sourced 1896 Armagnac poured over the top, a deep-brown, raisiny nectar that really flexes the owners' booze-buying powers.
All of this takes place in an interior that mixes French brasserie with Dickensian drinking hole, with diners able to pick from a French-leaning wine list similar to the one that drew countless plaudits at the first Noble Rot. And like its sister site, selected wines are available in 75ml tasters. Ranging from an easy-drinking Vinho Verde ‘Chin Chin'at £3 to a Chateau Grillet 2016 for £46, it is a brilliant touch for those keen to explore as much of the vaunted list as their livers can take.
Noble Rot Soho, 2 Greek Street, Soho, London W1D 4NB
020 7183 8190
From the menu
- Black figs, tomatoes and ricotta salata £12
- Veal tartare, raw artichoke, Ossau Iraty £13
- Palourde clams, turnips, saucisson, Riesling £11
- Cornish monkfish and mussel bourride £26
- Anjou pigeon, Muscat grapes, red wine, liver toast £35
- Girolles, grilled polenta, spinach, crème fraîche, Parmesan £19
- Pear, hazelnut and rosemary tart, crème fraîche £9
- Fig leaf panna cotta, black fig, salted fennel biscuit £9
- Chocolate mousse, brandy prune, hazelnut biscuit £8
Photography: Juan Trujillo Andrades
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