Mexican food is having a bit of a moment in London. In fact, it has been for a while. It’s easy to have a warped sense of time with the pandemic – so many places have opened, closed and re-opened.
There were already some reliable restaurants in what I’m now exclusively referring to as “the before times” (3,500 B.C. – 13 March 2020) – Corazon, the original El Pastor, Mestizo, all great stalwarts. When Ella Canta opened I thought we were in for a flood of new central American restaurants that would take us into regions, deep roots and exploring food and cultural connections. Sadly Ella Canta didn’t live up to expectations, and whilst Decimo at The Standard is fab, it’s really more Spanish with a few Mexican touches. Then Covid came and the momentum of Mexican restaurant openings sort of petered out.
But now with Side Hustle at The Nomad, Maya at The Hoxton, Taqueria Exmouth Market and KOL Marylebone opening this year, it looks like London’s love affair with Mexican cuisine is back up and running.
I must admit though, when I first heard about KOL, headed up by ex-Noma Mexican chef Santiago Lastra, I did a little eye roll. “Here we go again,” I mused, “another chef who worked somewhere famous gets their own spot.” I felt it had all the trappings of a few unmentionable, rather bland establishments that prematurely opened because the chef spent time at Noma or St. John. I’d seen this kind of opening in London all too often: a launch with big fanfare, big PR and, inevitably, disappointment follows.
But that was doing a disservice to both Lastra and his leadership of what was essentially the world’s most famous restaurant pop-up, which he ran from start to finish with Rene Redzepi for 18 months. Then you see the calibre of cooks who heap praise onto Lastra: Nuno Mendes and James Knappett at the YBF’s, his sell out time at the Marylebone incubator Carousel and now the realisation of a restaurant years in the making.
KOL sits in a newish apartment block on Seymour Street, part of the ultra-rich Marylebone modernisation with properties that only oligarchs can afford to own (but not live in). You’d normally expect a restaurant in such a space to be either cold, brutalist or overly post-modern. It’s a shock to step inside this world of sublime textures that feels as if it’s all come out of Santiago’s head. The thin marble on the booth tables reflects a kind of light into the room via the hessian curtains, the patina on the plates and the cups and walls are all a perfect textural vision of warmth. Then at the centre of it all: the open, near-silent kitchen. It whispers as it runs the room, dictating the pace of service like a steady heartbeat, seemingly never overexerted, just an efficient movement of people and plates.
I’m not sure I know enough about the depths of Mexican cuisine to truly give you the level of appraisal and insight you deserve. One of the pleasures of dining at KOL, however, is that suddenly you receive a crash course of knowledge you wish you’d had sooner. Delivering your mini PhD in the food and drink of Mexico are an array of excellent student teachers, under the deanship of Santiago. The pleasures of mole and mezcals, the joy of a boozy beetroot broth, constructing a stable taco with octopus and scissors, all taught here over lunch.
We began with enoki mushroom and crab tart: a two-bite snack that instantly set the scene for the 6 courses to come. The squid arrived next and I was trepidatious about it. Squid is just one of those things that can be done very well or be a total disaster. Luckily I was in good hands. Despite the preposterous-sounding combination of cashew nut mole and pickled cauliflower in the dish, it all just worked. The elements created a level of flavour that was completely unique. The inspired inclusion of that mole with cauliflower was a dream; a creamy, crunchy umami bed for the sweet squid to sit upon. The squid itself was delicately soft, velvety in the mouth, yet developed an instant resistance when chewed. This was a dish designed to masticate in the most marvellous of ways, bringing, like the dining room, a level of utterly unique and varied textures into the experience.
KOL is a place for a more thoughtful, considerate, perhaps grown-up version of Mexican food
Next was, for my money, the dish of the day – the lobster tacos. The crustacean was cooked to near perfection and served with a gentle smoked chilli and cucumber limes. Serving lobster this way seems almost counter-intuitive: purists will bemoan the lack of full lobster theatrics, bibs, crushing things, special forks and shell-slurping and yes, there are probably only two or three bites to this dish. But this is an accomplished bit of cooking. Way beyond the simple vehicle of a taco, it’s a dish showing off notably brilliant lobster, warming yet mild spicing, and fragrant cucumber. It might be one of the best things I’ve eaten this year.
The tostada came next, with trout and wild berries. It was a solid plate, if a little on the ‘safe’ side. Similarly, the main course, whilst engaging your assembly skills via scissoring up octopus, scraping clean some roasted bone marrow and apportioning a spiced carrot sauce, left a little to be desired. They were not bad, per se, just not as exciting, as layered or as intuitively executed as those openers.
It was at this point I realised all of what I’d just consumed was seafood and shellfish. As is the way of the times right now I would be proud of my reduced carbon footprint. I was essentially hitting net carbon neutral by 2050 for the entire country over here (but that might be the mezcal talking). And while were on that topic, where are we importing mezcal from again? Anyway, conversations about Britain’s reliance on imported food and drink aside, dessert was on the way.
Other than the words “ice cream” there wasn’t much to indicate anything sweet contained within the pudding comprising ‘Sunflower Seeds’, ‘Mezcal Cajeta’ and ‘Flowers’. I’ve always been a bit non-plussed about flowers on food. Sometimes they add a delicious sweet note, akin to a spring walk in some lovely smelling meadow. Occasionally though the horrid texture of thick petals and pungent florality can just as easily ruin an otherwise pleasant dish. Here, the flowers felt like more than simple decoration, the texture of the plate wasn’t imbalanced by their addition but neither was this dessert greatly improved by their presence – for my money, I’d just as easily do without and find an alternative method of heightening this generally tasty, if a touch savoury, pud.
It’s easy to see why London has fallen (back?) in love with Mexican food. It’s usually hearty, often great value for money and seems to serve some of the strongest spirits available in the city. KOL, though, is a place for a more thoughtful, considerate, perhaps grown-up version of Mexican food. It’s unpretentious, unique, and despite a slew of Mexican restaurants opening, nothing else in London quite compares.
9 Seymour Street
by Mike Daw