Review

Noble Rot Soho, London, restaurant review

4/5

A Soho stalwart is reborn. Now we just need Soho to survive...

Noble Rot Soho
The new outpost of the cult wine bar-cum-restaurant has our critic eyeing up his next visit Credit: Chris Pledger

Before the tedious logic of middle-of-the-road populism made it certain career suicide to be seen anywhere other than a Nando’s, eating out used to be something politicians approached with a certain flair. Keir Hardie at the Savoy (“Nothing is too good for the working classes!”), Tony Blair and Gordon Brown at Granita, whitebait suppers in Greenwich, the Curry House Conspiracy, David Cameron hurling bread rolls around like a wattled Zeus… the list, as they say, goes on.

High on any such list would be the Gay Hussar, a lovely, frowsy old Hungarian restaurant just south of Soho Square, founded in 1953 and much frequented by politicos, hacks and other such types until the turn of the present century. It wasn’t the menu that drew them, even if a formula of nursery food plus a dash of paprika, washed down with flagons of yer actual Bull’s Blood, must have been an appealing alternative to what was then on offer in the Palace of Westminster and the clubs of St James’s. Rather it was the opportunity for what nobody would then have dreamed of calling “networking” (one of the private dining rooms upstairs was informally christened the Tom Driberg Memorial Suite).

The Gay Hussar limped on, increasingly out of place in its neighbourhood, a rouged old courtesan quietly nursing a port and lemon, looking a little lost among all the yammering admen and self-facilitating media nodes. It closed its doors, occasioning an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons, in 2018. But now – shall these bones live? – a new restaurant has appeared on the same site, and channelling some of the same spirit, as the old one.

Noble Rot Soho is the second of its tribe. The original in Bloomsbury has a strong wine offer, a pleasingly rickety Dickensian air and a menu designed, in part, by my Telegraph colleague Stephen Harris. This one is plusher, more akin to its predecessor, with bordello-style wall lamps, a frieze of gently glowing decanters and lots of framed pictures including some – but thankfully, not too many – political cartoons. (I was reminded of the way that after every cataclysmic drubbing in the Neutral Zone, the starship Enterprise emerges from dry dock recognisable but reborn, sleeker and shinier, its nacelles subtly streamlined, its beverage holders more fully integrated, etc.)

At the con this time is Alex Jackson, a welcome sight indeed since his much-loved previous restaurant Sardine yielded to the Covid-19 crisis. Jackson’s posh-peasant shtick is easier to summarise than it is, one suspects, to execute; but it’s spot on here, where a few Hungarian rhapsodies sit happily alongside streamlined, modern takes on Elisabeth Luard-style European dishes.

So there’s some nifty charcuterie, a bourride with monkfish and a properly Provençal tomato and courgette dish; but there’s also stuffed cabbage with sour cream, and a fabulous-looking grand bouffe for two of chicken with morels, vin jaune and “riz au pilaf”.

There’s even a goulash, elegiacally dubbed “Gay Hussar”: a sop, perhaps to the consortium of MPs, including an as yet unslimmed-down Tom Watson, who lobbied for the preservation of the old restaurant and have kept a benevolent if, one hopes, not too stifling eye on the gestation of the new one.

I’d managed to rustle up a politician, or a sort-of one, as my date (in the nick of time before London’s tier-two status kicked in): my school friend Geoff, who sits on Westminster council. We ordered as if for an old-school lunchtime debauch, although it was 6.30 in the evening: it just feels like that sort of place, somehow. A crisp pecorino to go with the fishy stuff (sardines in vinsanto; clams with turnip and saucisson, both prettily cut into matchsticks; that bourride); a ferrous marcillac (Lo Sang del Pais, one of my favourite restaurant reds under £30) with the inevitable goulash, and a cheeky bandol with pudding.

I’ve got no negatives to report. OK, the goulash was a little school-dinner-like, but I suppose it always is. We clashed, amicably enough, over the legacy of the old Gay Hussar, where I’d been for a couple of lunchtime debauches and Geoff had had his leaving do when he worked nearby. He climbed down from his caustic assessment of the legendary cherry soup – he’d earlier tweeted that it tasted like sherbet – but insisted that it was like having pudding before your main course, and as such violated the laws of nature. It’s not on at the moment, though (not in season, Chef informed me, rather sternly), so the question was academic, really.

So: great food, rooted in tradition but shot through with originality and élan; a great room, nicely restored but offering a fragrant whisper of past glories. (I peeked into what had, I guessed, once been the Tom Driberg Memorial Suite, and that looked pretty inviting too.)

And yet the idea of Soho as the nation’s lock-in, a playground for pleasure-seekers of all hues – political or otherwise – looks pretty beleaguered these days. Geoff says they’re hoping to prolong the pedestrianisation scheme that has thrown the area a lifeline through summer and early autumn. NRS has a tempting prix fixe at lunchtime, which may be enough to keep trade ticking over.

But they’re clearly banking on Soho being Soho again, at some point in the not too distant future. And having enjoyed the uniquely civilised pleasure of eating out with an old friend somewhere elegant, buzzy and, crucially, indoors for the last time in a while, I’m with them.