Food House, 46 Gerrard Street, London W1D 5QH (020 7287 2818). Entrance £5.80 to £9.80; large dishes from £9.80 to £24.80; cooking pot £18-£38.80; whole fish £36. Wines from £19.80
All parents will retain deep affection for any restaurant where their grandchildren were happy, and the family so harmonious and no one died and can we all go home now please? That’s why Pizza Express retains the love of a slice of Britain’s middle class, despite the endless whining about the current quality of pizzas, and the stupidity of the one with the hole in the middle, and the bloody efforts of the corporations to capital risk . They have managed to maintain a welcoming culture for small children, without infantilizing their tired parents. It’s a good trick. And if you still want to explain why Pizza Express is terrible, please post about it on Reddit. Someone there will be gagged for your hot plug.
I have similar warm and fuzzy feelings about the premises at 46 Gerrard Street in London’s Chinatown, with its arched marble facade. For many years it was an extremely reliable Cantonese place called Harbor City. My boys loved dim sum when they were little, and so did I. The fluffy, cloud-like char siu buns had an uncommon citrus kick. The har gows were perfect. A Sunday lunch in Harbor City was always good.
Recently, the site Eater London, an offshoot of the US Eater empire, published a list of 38 “essential” restaurants in London. If you’re unfamiliar with Eater London, think of them as the cool boys in the back seat of the school bus of the food journalism world; those who listen to those bands you’ve never heard of and yes they have a girlfriend, she just goes to another school. But the thing about cool boys is that secretly you always wanted to listen to these bands to find out what was so great about them. Because maybe that would make you cool too.
Included in this essential list alongside reliable bangers like Mangal 2, Trullo and, er, the River Café was a Sichuan restaurant called Food House, which they claimed was “the hippest restaurant in central London”. In line with the history of the backseat of the bus, it was so fashionable, so cool, that I had never heard of it. I squinted at the address. Blow Me: It occupies the location of what was once Harbor City. Naturally, I booked.
Going by the mats, I would say that not much has been done to the joint for years. But it is a very different type of restaurant from the one I have known. It’s all the grand, edgy, thrilling, numbing chili-and-pepper hullabaloo that those of us addicted to Sichuan repertoire love. I believe you mean that Sichuan food isn’t just about chili, it’s about flavor. And, of course, it’s not just about the heat of the chilli. But in fact, it is too. There’s even a carafe of bright red oil, full of chili peppers, samovar style, on the bar so they can dispense it with the turn of a tap, like absinthe. If I had brought my boys here when they were little, they would have, in the face of all this, pulled at the sleeves of strangers and demanded to be taken to safety. Or maybe a security plate. Food House is comprehensive, in a good way.
One dish that is regularly talked about online is the dreaded bran red chili oil noodles. It’s actually one of the most soothing plates: wide ribbons of noodles with jagged edges the color of a baby’s teeth, come smoothed with just enough purple oil to remind you where you are. We topped it with crumbly pieces of long-braised lamb. It’s comfort food when you’re caught in a winter storm or like to imagine you might be.
Before we get there, there are other thrills. There’s the barbecue menu of things on skewers, ground up with cumin, salt, chili, and the occasional touch of sugar. Often it can be small cases, delivering pebbles of seized hard material. Here, the red willow twig lamb skewers are solid, thick chunks of still-smoldering baby mutton. There are also the lamb kidney skewers which, arriving with a wrapper of crispy fat, should be eaten while still hot. I understand that organ meats and their fat are not everyone’s business. They are my thing. We have king prawns which, under the heavy hand of the spice mix, seem to get even sweeter. Next to that are silky-skinned pan-fried pork and cabbage dumplings dripping their juices down my chin. It is an attractive look.
We have eggplant Yu Xiang (aubergine, on this menu) in a deep, shiny sauce and, among the wide selection of offal dishes, a plate full of more kidneys in a hot and sour sauce. When I called to reserve I was asked if I wanted the hot pot. It’s a big thing here. I’ve tried them elsewhere and never quite enjoyed them as much as I think I should. That’s partly because no matter what variety of ingredient list you can drop into broth or boiling oil, it all ends up tasting pretty similar to me. It is also incompetence. I usually end up sticking a chilli-dipped finger in one eye or the other.
Instead, we have another one of their signature dishes: a whole sea bass to share, roasted first so the skin and flesh along the tail where it tapers is crispy. It was then immersed in a bath of chilli oil, dancing with dried chillies and lotus root slices, sprigs of cilantro, halved garlic cloves and more. It’s stunning to behold, as if it has its own stage lighting system, and justifies its £36 price tag on these dashing looks alone.
However, it is not easy to eat. We enter it together, bypassing the bones to reach the precious flesh. But it’s definitely worth it: there’s a sweetness to the soft fish, tinted red by its vigorous liquor. It can get messy. Wear a bib or don’t wear a white shirt. Maybe don’t bother with clothes at all. It’s a pretty laid back place. Drink bottles of Yanjing beer to soften the burn. I’ll have to take the cool boys on the bus at their word that this is a very hip restaurant. I have long since lost the ability to recognize what is fashionable and what is not. But I can say it’s great fun. I finally have a good reason to return to 46 Gerrard Street.
In the January edition of OFM, I profiled six chefs to watch in 2022, including Helen Graham of charming Middle Eastern vegetarian restaurant Bubala, in London’s Spitalfields. She and partner Marc Summers have just announced a second Bubala, this time in Soho at the site of what was Italy’s venerable Vasco & Piero’s Pavilion. The 50-seat restaurant will open in April (bubala.co.uk).
Per Diem is a new food and household goods delivery service that, in its own words, sets out to do boring things “really, really well”. It only offers the basics – dry pasta, flour, sugar, rice, cleaning supplies, etc. – but only one good example of each, from independent vendors. At present, therefore, there are only 50 articles on the site. Products can be ordered as needed or on a monthly basis and they also offer a packageless refill service (getperdiem.com).
Rosa’s Thai, which has branches across the country, is trying to address the skills shortage in the hospitality industry by launching its own chef training program. Wok School will operate from the ground floor of its Warren Street restaurant in London and offer classes of varying lengths. Attendees will be paid £11.45 per hour and their meals will be served to customers at a 50% discount. Participants who complete the course will be offered a job upon completion (jobs.rosasthai.com/wok-school).