As a student in England in the 1970s I often took the train to London for theater and opera, and the Soho district was my center. There were cheap Chinese grocery stores and restaurants (excitingly different from those in New York’s Chinatown) and Italian delis selling ingredients I could not find in the Oxford of the day. I loved wandering its busy streets lined with movie-industry offices, unreconstructed cafés with rickety furniture – and in-your-face sex shops.
Soho’s allure waned as I lost interest in unpredictable Chinese food and predictable jostling crowds. As grownups, Jackie and I would occasionally dine in the district and would sometimes walk through it noting the demise of this or that favorite business from the old days (our source for Italian sausages, happily, remains: I. Camisa & Son is pretty much as it was in 1971).
And more recently we’ve enjoyed a handful of Soho restaurants, notably the latest incarnation of the venerable Quo Vadis, in a building once inhabited by Karl Marx and his incongruously aristocratic wife. But many new and interesting restaurants in the neighborhood are hideously, intentionally noisy and do not take reservations. If extremely hungry, I can live with one flaw or the other, but not with both.
Yet noise and inconvenience are not inevitable: On our December trip, we had delicious meals in two Soho newcomers, both of which accept reservations and are open late enough for after-theater supper.
One was Chinese and was located on the fringe of London’s main Chinatown – but was as unlike the typical fluorescent-lit storefront as if it had been standing on the ritziest corner of 1930s Taipei. This is not a random image: Xu is presented as a “cinematic” evocation of that time and place. Evocative it is, with the two-story space visually divided by dark-wood open-work screens into smaller seating areas – with intimate four-seat “mahjong” rooms that can be reserved for dining and, yes, mahjong – and with lighting calibrated to be atmospheric but not so dim that the menu is indiscernable (the restaurant is bright during London’s few hours of daylight). At least at 10:30 p.m., the noise level was ... well, there was no noise, just sound: the convivial hum that distinguishes eating out from eating at home. We felt happily relaxed, and (rightly) confident that the staff knew their stuff and would guide us well. If I had been fonder of tea, I’d have let them guide us through the restaurant’s impressive listing of Taiwanese teas, but we drank Riesling instead.
We sat upstairs, where there’s a little bar and a section of cozy booths for two or four, and we ordered several small dishes all of which were beautiful, flavorful and interesting – modern but respectful of tradition: sliced terrine of beef tendon (not rubbery, but with that characteristic gelatinous texture that we love and that a lot of people would prefer to leave alone) with a well balanced spicy vinaigrette that added lip-numbing Sichuan peppercorn zip to what is essentially a bland ingredient; a delicate salad of diced smoked eel and surprisingly tomato-y tomatoes (this was in November); and crisp lamb’s sweetbreads with fermented greens and another nicely calibrated sauce.
Also from the small-dishes part of the menu were pan-fried pork buns; steamed taro-dough dumplings stuffed with Taiwanese sausage, sweet and slightly funky (in a good way); and a halved marrow bone, its hollow piled with unctuous marrow and shredded glazed short ribs, with julienned vegetable garnishes. One failing here: the thin, perfectly circular pancakes with which we were to wrap everything (à la Peking duck) were dry and leathery, and we ended up contentedly eating with chopsticks.
The meal ended with one large main course, and it was a doozy. It was called Shou Pa Chicken, and it was certainly one of the dozen, or even half dozen, best chicken dishes we’d ever eaten. I said as much on Twitter, so it must be true. It’s moist, with crisp skin that’s been turned into a crunchy crumb-like garnish (the kitchen is equipped with an on-trend Josper charcoal-fired grill/oven), and perfumed with spices and chicken fat and ginger and scallions. Spectacular, and something it will be hard not to order again even though there’s so much else to try (roast Ibérico pork! Mapo tofu! Bamboo chili beef-fat rice!).
Our other Soho supper was at Rambla, just down the street from what were Marx’s lodgings a century and a half ago. Unlike Xu, it doesn’t aim to envelop you in a retro fantasy: the acoustic is what could be called lively, and at peak hours you and your companions will need to enunciate very clearly, though you won’t need to shout. The chef-owner of this and another couple of London restaurants, Victor Garvey, was born about a mile from where I live in New York and as a child was whisked away to Spain, where he was raised on the flavors of Catalan cooking. These can be appealingly intense; many dishes are built upon a foundation of sofrito: long-reduced aromatics that add remarkable depth to so many recipes.
One dish that made us smile exemplifies this intensity: Canelones (yes, the same word, and same construction, as cannelloni) filled with braised oxtail in a sauce so concentrated that in another context it might seem over-reduced, and topped with a goat-cheese cream that added extra savor and just a little lightness. Then there was spreadably soft-textured sobrassada sausage, porky and rusty red with pimentón (smoked paprika), put under the broiler with a sweet-tart glaze that, at first bite, seemed too sugary but that after the second mouthful we couldn’t stop eating as the glaze was invaded by fat. Do not fail to order those two things, on the understanding that everything at Rambla is intended to be shared: What might be too intense as a full main dish is just right as a shared portion that isn’t all that gigantic to start with (the prices are not gigantic either: the canelones cost only £5 – about $6.75).
Not every flavor here is so intense, and a nicely diverse meal can be assembled with ease. Mr. Garvey’s perfectly fried croquetas are free of the typical ham or dried cod: they are made with impeccably seasoned spinach, béchamel and pine nuts and are served with a garlicky mayonnaise-like alioli. You might want to order a couple of portions if you’re more than two at the table. One cold dish that did not live up to its description was a roulade of cured salmon, sweet-sour onions, crisp potatoes and horseradish; the fish was over-salted (and we’re big salt-lovers) and perhaps there was too much of it: it obscured the other flavors. The large roll-ups were also too big for a single mouthful – the only way, I think, to eat them.
In addition to a selection of Spanish cheeses, there were two desserts, both delicious (and both made to order to be served hot, so they take a while to arrive): Torrija, by way of a baked bread pudding; and a fine apricot-stuffed cylindrical almond cake – billed as a coulant because of its runny filling – delicately crisp on the outside and served with yogurt ice cream.
The menu is not huge, yet it is nicely balanced among raw or cured dishes; fish and seafood; meat; and interesting vegetarian/salad options. On another visit, we will certainly explore these in greater breadth. Wines are all Spanish, with a dozen or so, including three sherries, served by the glass.
Xu. 30 Rupert Street, London W1D 6DL; +44 (0) 20 3319 8147; http://xulondon.com/; firstname.lastname@example.org. Meal for two: We spent £59 on food and £48 for a bottle of Peter Lauer Riesling. Bigger eaters could add another main dish; these run £15 to £18.50.
Rambla. 64 Dean Street, London W1D 4QG; +44 (0) 20 7734 8428; http://ramblalondon.com/; email@example.com. Meal for two: £37 to £50 for food; £25 to £80 for a bottle of wine. We spent on the low end of the scale and walked out feeling full.