Among all the top knots and beanie hats, Jay feels out of place at Hoi Polloi. But then the delicious food arrives…
The Sunday evening of London fashion week in the low-lit, new Nordic fantasy that is Hoi Polloi, and the challenge is not to hate the place. Look at these people. The corrugated wood-panelled dining room is beard central. We’re in the land of full-on bush. Half this room hasn’t seen a razor since 2010. There are top knots, too. And beanie hats, worn inside in a warm centrally heated room. Many of them look like extras from Borgen.
Fashion gals totter about on shoes their feet will soon hate them for, wearing assemblages of flappy material which make me want to shout, “Look! Side boob!” But that would be unsophisticated and I don’t want to be that, not here. My noble colleague, Marina O’Loughlin over on the Guardian, not long ago defined a whole category of expensive restaurants in London’s West End as Mayfair Wankpits. Welcome then, to their cousin, the Shoreditch Tossfest. Beats thrum and we perch on furniture which in the Ikea catalogue would have names like Sven or Throstrum or Perineum. Except this is the real thing. It costs.
Hoi Polloi, as you are all aware, means “the people” – because you know stuff like that. To be more exact, it means the common people, or maybe even the rabble. Which makes the whole thing even more of a joke. The Ace Hotel group – there are others in New York, Los Angeles and Palm Springs – prides itself on attracting a crowd that is not at all ordinary. In truth they attract people who are very ordinary indeed, but wear a beanie hat or a beard to make them look edgy. Look, it’s a business model and everyone needs one of those.
Certainly they know how to charge them for the pleasure. Pretty much every dish on the menu costs a couple of quid more than you think it should.
You walk through a florist’s to reach the restaurant, which is irritating enough. When, instead of a menu, they hand me a 12-page newspaper “guest edited” by someone called “Princess Julia“, I start patting myself down for a box of matches with which to torch the joint. The smell of burning beard would float over east London for weeks. It’s an extraordinarily complicated document of full page menus – breakfast, brunch, daytime, overnight, all day, lunch and dinner – which cross over with each other inexorably.
Hoi Polloi is the kind of place that offers a shake containing “banana, soya beans, almond milk, date, tahini, lucuma, wildflower honey, soya bean flour, pink rock salt” at £5. For the sake of doubt you have to pay them the fiver rather than them paying you to take it off their hands, which would be so much more the thing. The cocktail list includes a “National Handbag” and a “Cod Eek”. Nope. No idea. What’s wrong with a whisky sour? It’s all trying so damn hard.
But sometimes hate cannot spring eternal. Sometimes you get to the essentials, which in the case of a restaurant is the food, and everything changes. It’s the Café Football scenario all over again. I can’t claim the cooking is good enough to quite wrestle the entire proposition out of the realms of Shoreditch Tossfestery. But you can eat well here, if you manage not to think about the cost. This isn’t a huge surprise; the restaurant is a collaboration with the team behind Bistrotheque, which through a series of ventures across hipster east London has built a reputation for robust, grounded cooking.
From the snacks list we choose pickled onion rings and at first the combination of vinegar-drenched onion inside and crisp battered oily shell out is just too rich. I feel my arteries begin to harden in protest. But dredged through its accompanying pot of salt-cod cream it makes sense. There is salt and sour and crunch and soothing dairy. It’s a snack invented by someone who knows just how much you can get away with at the start of a meal when your audience is hungry.
From the offerings on toast there is a perfect dish for a Sunday supper: sautéed wild mushrooms on sour dough with, in the middle, a runny duck-egg yolk. What lifts it above the ordinary is an intense mushroom purée spread across the toast before being layered with the mushrooms. (The same trick turns up later in a side of broccoli with anchovy crumb across the top and a broccoli purée across the bottom.) A winter salad of salsify, Jerusalem artichokes and Berkswell cheese is a bunch of well-dressed, earthy things – the Ray Winstone of salads.
My companion, who doubles as my wife, asks to have the roast chicken. I mutter about it being a banal choice, but she pleads, mumbles about it being a Sunday night. I give way. Restaurant kitchens generally aren’t good at roasting chickens. It’s a domestic dish, better roasted whole and on the bone. But if you can ignore the £18 price tag – I can’t, not quite – this is impressive. There’s lots of crisp skin, and invigorating greens and whole cloves of garlic roasted unto mush and a deep, sticky chicken gravy.
A brick of lamb breast comes with its own dark crunchy skin. Usually it is served bound and tied. Here it just flops over a pile of lentils lubricated by another sticky jus and lots of mint. There are chips fried in dripping; you can taste the rendered cow in every bite.
We finish with an admirable trifle of pistachio cake, coconut and passion fruit which is a little too much custard and not quite enough fruit, but does the job. A chocolate stout cake has a little too much icing, but is encouraged off the plate by a splodge of foamy salted caramel sauce. Wine pricing is fierce, but this crowd doesn’t seem to notice. I moan about them again and my wife says: “Look, I’m in a nicely lit wood-panelled room where they’re playing songs from when I was a teenager. I rather like it.”
I go to the loo and study myself in the mirror: beard, sideburns, hair like a mulberry bush. Who am I kidding? I’m the epitome of Shoreditch Tossfest. Except, of course, no beanie. Surely, that’s my redeeming feature? I am beanie free. In the end, I suppose, it’s a tribal thing. I just don’t feel part of this restaurant’s tribe. You might. Or you might enjoy the people-watching. Either way, only come with deep pockets. Watching these people costs.
Jay’s news bites
■ Given the glorious Art Deco sweep of the renovated Midland Hotel in Morecambe, the food doesn’t need to try too hard. There’s always the view to compensate. In reality you could sit with your back to the window and still feel you’d got a good deal from a menu which bigs up its local joys – nutty brown Morecambe Bay shrimps and Goosnargh duck (englishlakes.co.uk)
■ The Clink, a new restaurant located inside Brixton prison and offering training to inmates, has opened for business. It follows the successful launch of other restaurants at prisons in Cardiff and High Down, Surrey. The Clink is open for breakfast and lunch. Bookings must be made online at least 48 hours in advance and mobile phones are not allowed in the dining room (theclink restaurant.com)
■ Spare a thought for the residents of Bobtown, Pennsylvania, where a fracking well explosion burned for five days, killing one person. Their compensation from well-owners Chevron? A letter of apology and a voucher for a large pizza. Which is nice.
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