It’s not every day a man takes his top off in one of London’s best restaurants. And the odds must surely be against a bloke over sixty doing the honours.
And yet that’s what inexplicably happens towards the end of a recent meal at the Palomar, the acclaimed slither of a place inspired by “the food of modern day Jerusalem”, and owned by noughties DJ and artist Layo (of Layo & Bushwacka fame).
But let’s rewind to the start of the evening, when affable front-of-house Matthew chirpily pops my name on a waiting list, and promises to call in an hour. It’s a no-bookings place, obviously.
When our time comes, we ask for a stool at the open kitchen-facing 16-seat counter – the back room has way less soul – and immediately order a round of very tearable kubaneh bread. Of the two sauces, the tomato subtly rules over the tahini. And the soundtrack is equally hypnotic – as you’d expect from a bloke who once co-owned seminal nightclub The End.
We sit with a cocktail, as the chefs clutter about in front of us. A Drunken Botanist is a worthy take on a negroni, with added green chartreuse, and allows us to mull over the various sections of the menu, called poetic but somehow not-quite-right names like Oceans & Rivers, Pastures & Courtyard, Field & Garden.In an attempt to cover as much ground as possible, we try at least one sharing plate from each section. Two are pretty good: pork belly, sweet with apricots and celeriac, is sticky, melty and falls away from its scored skin; and sea bream and octopus, blasted on the plancha, accompanied by fine beans and pickled shallots, is a fishy flash of gastropub heaven.
The polenta is stunning: served in a glass dessert-style, and already the subject of critical raves, it doesn’t disappoint, with its funky hit of mushrooms, truffle and asparagus. A superior slab of rose-red cured mackerel (that “splits customer opinion”, says the cheery waitress), straddles a jumble of za’atar, radish, toasted almonds and sweetly acidic plum.
And a hasty dessert isn’t regretted: the smooth mound of ouzo and pink grapefruit sorbet is festooned with a very textural pine nut brittle, while sea salt and rosemary add tongue-tingling seasoning.
Just as we’re onto espresso martinis – yes, yes, I know – there’s a minor kerfuffle behind us. As we turn round, a man, of undoubtedly pensionable age, has removed his shirt in front of his date and is showing the cringing waiters tanned pecs and muscles.
We can but laugh: this is Soho, after all. Long may it – and the Palomar – live.
Plates £4-17. Open daily till 11pm, 34 Rupert Street W1. More here.