The best restaurants in Soho right now
XU Taiwanese Teahouse and Restaurant, Rupert Street
XU (pronounced Shu) transports you into a world of 1930’s Taipei. Picture a small ground floor room, furnished with warm lacquered wood, pale leather banquettes, ceiling fans and palms. Upstairs the curved wooden martini bar headed with a railway clock, feels like a set for a Taiwanese detective film.
I took my Shanghainese sister-in-law who was already at home with many of the dishes. Tomato and smoked eel, one of the smaller plates, presented tiny cubes of sweet tomato and eel in a pool of rice vinegar and chilli sauce. The perfect balance of umami, acidity and texture. When I’d done all I could with my chopsticks, I scraped up the last of the sauce with my spoon. Sichuan Duck Guo Kui was wrapped up in the silkiest textured dumplings. Blood wanton in fermented beetroot broth was a little underwhelming, but I liked the idea. We both tried the chilli egg drop crab served in a shell, topped with salmon roe and crisp mantou to scoop it with. XU’s mapo tofu is one of the best vegetarian dishes I’ve encountered in a cuisine usually so focused on meat and fish. The tofu was wobbly, silken and firm in a dense, umami sauce spiked with green peppercorns. Accompanying everything was simple steamed Chi Shiang rice and hot Oolong tea to wash it all down. Both the rice and tea were refilled for us as needed.
My companion applauded its authenticity, I admired the setting and exquisite flavours. I have since returned on several occasions, including for a tea ceremony accompanied by Taiwanese inspired pastries. Next time it will be for Mahjong and martinis.
The French House, Dean street
The small upstairs room of this famous Soho pub has a history of good food. Fergus and Margot Henderson ran a restaurant there in the ‘90s and now the same dining room, nearly unchanged, is home to Neil Borthwick’s excellent cooking.
The place still has the aura of late night, louche soho; red painted walls are hung with black and white photographs, the well trodden floor is creaky and uneven. But with the sunlight flooding through the sash windows on a cold winter day, it felt like the only place to be.
I’m always grateful for a short menu, in this case handwritten, which suggests that dishes change frequently. The bread and butter (chewy sourdough and cold, creamy butter) made me confident we were off to a good start. My psychoanalyst friend chose a dozen Fines de Claires oysters mignonette and was visibly seduced by them. I went for the violet artichoke, tardivo (radicchio) and pumpkin salad. These ingredients are all seasonal and familiar but of the highest quality, and well dressed. A simple dish elevated to something much greater. We both went for the Norfolk quail, served with jerusalem artichokes and hazelnut. The artichokes were sweet and soft, the quail petite and juicy; while the hazelnuts gave it a welcome crunch. Our friendly waiter brought us a warm tray of madeleines as an apology for the slow service – which we hadn’t minded about and barely noticed. But who can say no to a gesture like that? We had just enough room to share a Paris Brest for pudding. My companion’s eyes rolled in delight as his spoon cracked through layers of fine pastry, spilling cream and chocolate sauce from the inside.
Looking around the room, our fellow diners seemed to be as content as us. I think we all knew that here, upstairs at the French House, is where you will still find excellent food.
Kiln, 56 Brewer St, London W1F 9TL
Thai food has never been my first choice when it comes to eating out. I’ve found that what starts as appetising, quickly becomes overly sweet and messily flavoured. So it was with some trepidation that I entered Kiln, a narrow strip of a room, with a busy bar running along its length.
Behind the bar, charcoal fires burn and chefs work over hot grills. The menu is a short selection of Thai regional dishes, mainly cooked over fire or in clay pots in a wood oven. The focus is on the quality of ingredients. Scottish Langoustines came first, smackingly fresh and raw. Bathed in a delicate sweet-sour-salty sauce with Thai mint leaves. The herbs and other vegetables are grown in Cornwall (at an organic farm I have visited). Stir- fried mixed greens (including Cornish kale) and soy with peanuts, had a thick syrupy sauce, which we poured over our nutty, brown rice.
As larger dishes, we chose one dry and one wet fish curry: a dry red curry of bream, which was intense, sweet and sour. The wet turmeric curry of Turbot was brothy and delicate, with slices of slippery but crunchy kohlrabi; another excuse to pour spoonfuls of liquid over the rice. A ‘Northern style’ kohlrabi and herb salad was refreshing with citrus zest and more Thai herbs. Finally the clay pot glass noodles with Tamworth pork and brown crab arrived, sizzling at the table. The noodles were tender without being sticky, the dressing full of clean, strong flavours.
With the quality of ingredients and cooking as good a this, my opinions have changed. Given the choice of anything to eat in London right now, the Thai cooking at Kiln would be top of my list.