23 May 2008

New Chop on the Block

'I can see a growing trend for places that offer traditional cuts of meat on the bone...'
[Mark Hix recreates the 18TH century Chop House]
RESTAURATEUR AND comedian (I will qualify later) Mark Hix, has obviously had a lot of fun with his latest joint. Joint, T-bone, hanger steak and shin, in fact. Beneath a bling sign, his plain-tiled dining room immediately fits within the Smithfield scene. Think exposed floorboards, old-fashioned canteen globes that glow, paper tablecloth guards, pillar box red pepper cellars, chunky Duralex water glasses and stationary fans. In fact this retro rejuvenation of a former sausage factory is all a little St. John (Fergus Henderson is his friend).
A dark wood bar dispenses artisan beers, porter and ciders (warning: the wine list is devastatingly poor and corkage is forbidden).
As an aside, I once worked with a pig farmer turned winemaker who in another life accidentally tipped a black bag of what he thought were hops, but what proved to be stale cigarette butts into a Bungay brew. No matter, it improved the blend (or so he said). Maybe the definition of the well-intentioned artisan is to be able to make mistakes but still charge for them at the end?
Anyway, Hix, who spent 17 formative years with Caprice Holdings, evidently values his army of suppliers. You can taste their dedication along the adventure that is lunch. In fact at least one of the more surreal cheese suppliers, Blur bassist, Alex James, was quietly lunching within when two friends and I arrived. This 'dandyish, elegantly wasted alcoholic genius of Soho', who purportedly 'blew a million quid on champagne' now nurtures a herd of goats in the Cotswolds. Apparently the Oasis duo also harbour hardened lactic ambitions.
Despite being seated in an unremarkable corner by a striped chubby oaf who was about as much fun as running cross country with a flattened slug in one’s plimsole, the charming, knowledgeable, unpretentious Scot who took over put us at ease. So impressive was his service that we would have been very happy for him to join us.

Our waistlines already widening in anticipation, we begun with shell-on oysters berthed on seaweed: tiger striped, nervy, mineral and crisp Lindisfarne, and creamier Maldon. I dipped into the homemade Cabernet Sauvignon shallot vinegar. I normally hate this concoction, but the sweet, blackcurrant scented version was clearly superior. According to our waiter, “the oysters are so good we open a bottle for them”.

A bottle of '05 White Rioja by Finca Allende from the village of Briones, home to Dinastia Vivanco’s famous wine museum, is allegedly crafted in the modern style. Bolshily sturdy, tropically fruit-driven and simultaneously green, with lanolin and overt, but appropriate, heavily charred oak and eventual acidity.
Softened ‘soldiers’ of Cornish Asparagus were served prostrate on a porous antique silver rack with tepid Hollandaise which lacked lemon tang. Incidentally, critic Marcel Proust once claimed that asparagus transformed his chamber-pot ‘...into a flask of perfume.’ He later qualified it as Believe, by Britney Spears.Hard boiled Gulls Eggs, the shells mottled like quayles, only larger, were picked from a wooden bowl and served with salt. The yoke, still slightly runny, had a longer aftertaste than their clucking counterparts, and was not even vaguely fishy.
My companions enjoyed a salted Ox Cheek Salad, although I thought the twist in that tail was the fact it resembled Spam. Uncomfortably acutely.
The final starter, chilled to the point of being killed, was a Rabbit Brawn terrine with mustard. Tasty, bound with plenty of moisturising aspic glue, the mustard knocked it back into submission too dramatically.
A trip to check on Marcel Proust’s poetic claim via a Marcel Duchamp installation revealed the aesthetically horrific depths plundered by Hix’s humour. On the loo doors, intimately close-up photographs of gender specific body parts have been hastily hung. If anyone requires qualifcation, E-MAIL ME for an image. Returning, I noted a neon squiggle on the wall. When reflected in a carefully placed mirror, it spelt out an expletive seasoned sentence.
We battled on, choosing a bottle of '05 Amsfield Pinot Noir from middle earth (Central Otago). Spicy, softened by bright, bulging, buoyant raspberry fruit and a shaving of dark cooking chocolate, it was depressingly under-powered for our Porterhouse, carved at the table. Sealed toastily and almost blue within, this very mature, rested meat Uluru was beyond reproach the finest protein ever to enter my mouth. Partnered with butter infused with more shallot vinegar, almost foie gras in feel, the bloody succulence had us in awe. The neon phrase reflected in the mirror suddenly made sense. We exclaimed it! Our waiter smiled as he caught me almost archaeologically excavating the final remnants. Entrancing.
Blur’s youthful cheese, wrapped in vine leaves was served too cold, with overpoweringly sweet, Hob-Nob style crackers and a tiny glass of depthfully refreshing Maury (although we were initially over-charged for a bottle).
Close-by, Glasshouse chef Shaun Hill and his companion came to the end of a long lunch, seemingly sated.
Once the curiously regular temperature issues are rectified, and a thoughtful wine list devised, I think this very valid new opening will soar into the scorebooks. Whilst every conceivable critic has bibbingly hurtled there, this is actually an eatery which ought to eschew them, luring in the less parasitic public with its gnawable simplicity and witty flounces...

Hix Oyster & Chop House - 35-37 Greenhill Rents, Cowcross Street, London EC1M 6BF. T. 020 7017 1930.

Nearest Tube: Farringdon

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