London Classics: #1. The Palomar, Soho W1

Grab a stool at the kitchen-facing counter. Photo: PR
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.

Stunning: the polenta. Photo: PR
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.

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Five more London Classics we’ve loved this year

Our dish of the year: Octopus and Peas. Photo: PR

Ikoyi
Superlative West African cooking. Go for the octopus and peas (pictured): our pick of the year. 1 St James’s Market SW1
Westerns Laundry
Awesome sharing plates in unique location from the clever folk behind Highbury’s Primeur. 34 Drayton Park N5, full review here.
Hawksmoor
The Borough Market branch is the best yet. Steak that dazzles. Borough Market SE1, more here.
Spuntino
Tipsy in Soho but want to eat well? This Italo-NYC diner is still flawless after nearly a decade. 61 Rupert Street W1, full review here.
Kiln
Top-level Northern Thai food eaten facing an open kitchen. Try the mangalitsa. 58 Brewer Street W1, full review here.

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