“A lot is very good, but the missteps are amazing” – restaurant review

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Socca, 41a South Audley Street, London W1K 2PS (020 3376 0000). Small dishes £9-£35, pastas £18-£48, mains £25-£66, desserts £12, wines from £47

The fancy Mayfair restaurants are full of older people wearing young people’s shirts. Each night these tables are a study in the abject fear of mortality. Bring on the botox and the fillers and the inappropriate music they pretend to like. Add the newly opened Bistro Socca to this list. It’s not cheap as the Himalayas aren’t flat and Boris Johnson isn’t honest. A Salade Niçoise costs £26. The lamb chops are £52. The cheapest bottle of wine is £47 (sold at retail for £11.20). In order to be able to pay these prices comfortably, you should have reached a certain age.

And yet, as you smash through the door, you’ll be slammed in the sternum by the kickdrum ‘n’ bass pounding of high-volume tunes aimed at an entirely different demographic. Who thinks that this is the right accompaniment to a menu like this, full of sunshine and gentle warmth of the French Riviera? Possibly restaurateur Samyukta Nair has spent the last few years filling these affluent streets with expensive restaurants like Bombay Bustle, Koyn and Mimi Mei Fair. I read the press releases, rolled my eyes and moved on.

'The best reason to come here': 'My mother's tripe and squid au gratin'.

‘The best reason to come here’: ‘My mother’s tripe and squid au gratin’. Photo: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Why I’m here? Because the chef at Socca is the great Lyon-born Claude Bosi, who is a rare and delightful creature. He cooks complex, precise, multi-Michelin starred dishes while rarely losing sight of the need to satisfy the appetite. At his first London restaurant, Hibiscus, he offered a sausage roll amid gastronomic knife juggling. It hasn’t been deconstructed or evolved, or dressed up in edible Louboutins. It was just a sausage roll; A brilliant, made from puff pastry and the best seasoned minced pork, with their own brown sauce on the side.

Socca, named for the rustic flatbreads made from chickpea flour, is said to be Bosis’s celebration of southern French food, apparently shaped by his memories of the long lunches he ate there with his family as a child. If anyone can do justice to this herb-scented, caper-spiked, olive oil-clad repertoire, it should be Bosi. I knew it was going to be bloody expensive, but I was really excited. So let’s try to turn off the ridiculous music and get started. Admire the eggshell blue leather upholstery and the marble bar and all the artwork that looks like it could have been done by someone famous. Snap snaps of the brass scallop sconces and the small half-net curtains on each side of the cabins. It’s a 3D mood board for when you decide to remodel your living room to look like an oligarch’s vision of relaxed and cool.

'As good as it should be for £48': Turbot with Romesco.

‘As good as it should be for £48’: Turbot with Romesco. Photo: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Repel the waiters in suits and boots that come at you in gracious waves, like gallant officers leading their troops out of the trenches. Wine menus full of three-digit numbers end up on the cocktail menu first if you really want the menu. There is also a lecture on sharing plate concepts and order numbers that makes me do mental arithmetic: three from this side, you say, plus two from over there and maybe one from the column on the right? Is that correct? And here comes the bread. It’s the first worrying sign. Apparently the focaccia has seen better days, that day may have been yesterday. The sourdough is dry. A waiter sees us tearing at it desperately. He points us to the olive oil bottle, which looks black because the glass is tinted. Strange call. Good olive oil has a nice grassy color. They decided to make it look kinda toxic. But it is good and helps the weary old bread in its hour of need.

So that we understand each other. Many dishes are very good. The 26-pound Niçoise salad is lovely in a quiet, understated way. Yes, slaw and peppers are in, but there’s no shortage of salad greens here in Mayfair, is there? You know the tuna is the good stuff, out of those jars whose price makes you wince when you see it in the fancy local delis. There’s a delicious whipped cream of pale pink taramasalata with crab and nutty toasted sesame crackers.

“Pretty in a quiet, reserved way”: Salade Niçoise. Photo: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Included in a section of larger dishes headed “Claude’s Favorites” is a dish titled My Mom’s Tripe and Squid Gratin. I had it when it was on the menu at Bibendum, his flagship restaurant in Fulham, and this £25 glazed terracotta dish of the deepest, stickiest and most umami-rich midnight black stew is the best reason to come here. It is the humblest of all ingredients made princely. It’s Bosi at his best. A piece of roast turbot at £48 is as good as it should be at this price point and served with a solid romesco sauce.

It’s the missteps, like this bread, that amaze. A Menton cake is called a “pissaladière without anchovies”. In other words, it’s not as good as your actual pissaladière. It’s a thick, drying, spongy base covered in a lean spread of caramelized onions. Her dauphinoise is made from heavy chunks of potato in a slippery, weak cream sauce rather than slices, as if no one in the kitchen was willing to risk the mandolin.

'Excuse me what?'  The Swiss chard cake.

‘Excuse me what?’ The Swiss chard cake. Photo: Sophia Evans/The Observer

And then there is the Swiss chard tart dessert. sorry what? Yes, it is indeed a shortcrust pastry made from sugared chard and pine nuts. I fully understand that farmers once had to endure the toughest of months eating whatever was available, which included making some sort of dessert out of cabbage. That doesn’t mean we have to eat it now. I ordered it because it’s my job and as always so you don’t have to. It was like eating a sweet cabbage soup. I should think of the beautifully made Rum Baba or the hollowed out lemon filled with the brightest sun-kissed lemon sorbets. But no, I’m anxiously fixated on memories of the chard pie.

As always with Socca, I traveled with hope. I wanted it to be fabulous, a restaurant that stops the world. I wanted that absolute fabulousness to bring the price down. But it was odd and uneven rather than perfect as it should be. Not that they should care. The tables were packed with this metallic lurex set, with wide eyes and rigid eyebrows. There’s a brutally simple test I use at the end of a night like this. Would I return to spend my own money? No, I’m not convinced of that.

bite news

Chef Joké Bakare is crowdfunding a new home for her West African restaurant Chishuru, which has been highly acclaimed (myself included) in Brixton’s market for a number of years as of September 2020. The new location is just a few minutes’ walk from London’s Oxford Circus. She needs £75,000 to get the business up and running and offers a range of dining options, both in the restaurant and at home, in return for the funds. You can read more and donate Here.

And news of another crowdfunder, this time to help defray costs incurred by a senseless act of vandalism. In the early hours of March 8, the windows of Flat Earth Pizzas in London’s Bethnal Green were smashed. This was followed by two more incidents in the past year. Flat Earth, which began as a series of pop-ups in 2019, while insured for damage, comes with a whole host of other costs, not the least of which is installing shutters to keep it from happening again. You can donate Here.

Food delivery company Just Eat is piloting a carbon footprint labeling scheme in Brighton. Main meals are given a carbon rating ranging from A for low carbon emissions to E for very high carbon emissions. Participating companies include BrewDog, Smoque Burger and Fat Burger and Desserts. The latter is expanding the project via the Just Eat platform to 40 other branches across the country.

Email Jay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1


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