Keen-eyed folk about town strolling along Dean Street these days from the Shaftesbury Avenue end can’t fail to notice the miscellany of eateries that adorn its sides. What folk may not recognise, at first glance that is, is the quality of these establishments and the height of regard they are held in by the Londoners who frequent them.
This stretch of soho, it appears, is the place to be if you want to make your mark; Ducksoup, Soho Joe, Groucho Club, Tonkotsu, Dean St Town House and even the crustacea of the now Burger & Lobster empire have clawed their way onto the scene as of last year. The well-established Berwick Street Market ‘Pizza Pilgrims’ have opened tangible doors in order to make even more dough on Dean Street in the near future too.
This vibrant, varied new gastronomic scene is the essence of soho today; unique, diverse (largely) independent restaurants offering fresh, unpretentious market fare at unarguably brilliant customer-friendly prices. The soho ‘institutions’ of a time gone by will surely be swallowed-up by this tsunami of fashionable food, wouldn’t you think? Look at L’Escargot – more L’Escargone these days, alas.
My advice to successfully traverse the path through the Dean Street gauntlet? Follow the bright red neon star in the sky; when it eventually reads “Quo Vadis” you can relax, as you’ve succeeded in reaching this destination which, since its opening almost one hundred years ago, has probably never faced such stiff competition all on one street.
The Hart brothers took on this strained establishment without a clear message back in 2008. Three years later, they hit the jackpot when they installed the brilliantly effervescent Scotsman, Jeremy Lee as the driving force in the kitchen. The man himself greeted our party as we crossed the threshold into the wonderful art deco foyer before leading us to the bar for an essential pre prandial cocktail or two – he must know us well.
The soho ‘institutions’ of a time gone by will surely be swallowed-up by this tsunami of fashionable food, wouldn’t you think? Look at L’Escargot – more L’Escargone these days, alas.
The dining room is modest; sharp-edged and clean, scattered with chunky earthenware pots and flower arrangements, kissed by oodles of natural light flooding onto the linen through the immaculate 1920’s stained glass windows that look out onto the street. The menu card itself is a delight to peruse; it even seemed to know that it was a ‘dazzling’ 25 degrees outside. Nice touch. This single sheet is an achievement in itself, as it comprises the menu for the whole day. A dazzling three course set lunch/ pre theatre for £20 certianly cannot be argued with.
Single oysters, sandwiches, hot plates of the day and seasonal salads run a ring around the days menu in the centre. The advertised Edouardini cocktail: campari, vodka, lemon juice and soda provided a perfectly sharp, negroni-like thirst quencher to get things going before the starters arrived. A warm salad of sardine, samphire, seaweed and mint was a summer showcase of Lee’s gentle style; beautifully fresh, seasonal and well textured. The squid, bean and tomato dish struck similarly sunny notes with fellow diners.
A hake, a hake, my kingdom for a hake! It was a delight to have this wonderful creature come out as a main course. It is a fish which is still not recognised enough by the british palate. The spaniards however are laughing, since we export most of it to the continent. A butch fillet, surrounded by a crab bisque, flavoured with fennel, tomato, and a big unexpected ballsy kick of chilli was undoubtedly the winner of the day. Those two dishes alone perfectly demonstrate the skill and versatility of Lee’s cooking.
It would be easy to slip into the all too common vacuous narrative of the ‘let the flavours speak for themselves’ and ‘simplicity, done well’ nonsense that we hear all the time these days. It would be a shame to brand Quo Vadis under this lexicon. Lee’s cooking has a pair of cojones on it – and it’s not afraid to show it. That’s the difference; making an unashamedly classic, cool message become not only contemporary but necessary at the same time among its prestigious neighbours. This reinvention of Quo Vadis appears to have taken the crown of the soho dining scene and is here to stay. Long live the Queen of Dean Street.
Quo Vadis. 26-29 Dean Street, London W1.
020-7437 9585. Open Mon-Sat, lunch noon–2.45pm, dinner 5.30–10.45pm.
Three courses, wine, many cocktails and service for two: £120