This review was published in December 2021. Sadly, the restaurant closed down in July 2023.
Perhaps by virtue of globalisation and our (sob) 47 year membership of the EEC/EU, London has become home to an array of international restaurants, even if these are still a bit skewed to a Western palate. Other-worldly Archipelago challenges all of that and promises to take you out of your comfort zone. It has been at its current location in the shade of the BT Tower on Cleveland Street for many years already, yet for some reason I never ventured in. Two friends thought it was time to finally take the plunge – that it “would be good for us.” After all, crunchy crickets and love bug salads are the sustainable food of the future.
Open-mindedness and an Indiana Jones spirit of adventure are prerequisites for any meal at Archipelago
Inside, it’s part Beetlejuice, part The Temple of Doom. Following a password check on the door (the password is given to you when you book), staff deliver menus in parchment scrolls and fill mismatched glassware with water. This gives you enough time to take in the ornamental knick-knacks and general eccentricity. Otto’s is kitsch but gets away with it because the food and service are so brilliant. Sarastro, with its opera boxes and ‘entertainment’, takes things up a few more notches (one visit was enough for me). But this small Fitzrovia restaurant takes flamboyance to a whole new level. Putting so much emphasis on quirky design is usually the first red flag for me but I approach everything with an open mind. Open-mindedness and an Indiana Jones spirit of adventure are prerequisites for any meal at Archipelago…
Despite being in such an odd environment, service was actually very well-intentioned and friendly, even if there was little room for off-menu discretion. It seemed to be too much of an effort to make a Negroni, even though I could see gin, Campari and vermouth in the back bar. But as one of my companions reminded me, we were here to do something a bit different. So we opened proceedings with a passable Russian vodka and lime concoction, garnished with a 1980s Del Boy cocktail umbrella. It only reconfirmed the bizarre tone of the evening.
The menu boasts a kaleidoscope of influences traversing Australasia, South America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Not knowing where to start, we thought we might as well throw a dead cricket at the map and see where it landed. In this case, it eased us in gently with something a bit ‘safer’: Mexican pork belly had an appropriate amount of give and was cooked generally well, though the flavourless freeze-dried apple added nothing to the dish.
Then things took a turn for the weird and wonderful. A recently retired zebra came back in jerky form, with a carrot and ginger gel daubed around the plate and served on “biltong soil”. The zebra was lean, gamey and presumably had lived an energetic life on the Serengeti. (Somehow, feasting on docile alpaca seemed a bridge too far).
Meanwhile, the crocodile curry with coriander rice had a pleasant nuttiness but lacked the advertised spice. As for the crocodile itself, perhaps it wasn’t as ‘snappy’ as we were expecting: actually it wasn’t unpleasant, rather like quail or chicken, but in this case a little uninteresting. It therefore needed a really flavoursome curry to lift the dish. I’m not sure the tofu vegan alternative would’ve fared much better.
whilst international travel is such a faff right now, let alone uncertain, this is worth at least one visit for the randomness
Onto Aleppo-spiced elk with a Brazilian potato salad, taking fusion to a new zenith, this was a delicious and intriguing highlight. However, the berbere spiced lamb with duqqa powder and piri piri sauce, in some kind of bizarre three-way marriage of Ethiopian, Egyptian and South African traditions, was slightly tough and surprisingly bland.
Notably we found in reality none of the dishes seemed to match with their more alluring pictures on the website. And something needs to be done about those passé smears on the plate. But credit where it’s due: it can’t be easy cooking and maintaining such an eclectic menu.
I’m sure in some plane of existence chocolate-dipped locusts and caramel meal worms are just lovely but we declined desserts. In any case, my two fellow diners began to feel unwell. The last thing anyone needs after any kind of meal, let alone such an exotic one, is for their colon to do the conga. Fortunately I somehow managed to escape illness, so I don’t think their discomfort was due to poor hygiene in the kitchen, but perhaps simply their constitutions not being used to unusual dishes. Who knows. At the least the bill – around £60 each – didn’t require a side order of Pepto Bismol.
Overall, it’s hard to work out what this utterly bonkers restaurant is actually about. At times it feels like they’re throwing the kitchen sink at everything at the expense of finesse. Certainly, for escapism and the taste of the exotic, it has its place – and whilst international travel is such a faff right now, let alone uncertain, this is worth at least one visit for the randomness. I just doubt I’ll be returning in a hurry.
53 Cleveland Street
by J A Smith