Wednesday, 3 November 2010
Wahaca, Covent Garden
It is the Holy Grail for restaurateurs, I'm told, to run a successful business with a no-reservations policy. Anywhere good (and/or popular) enough to have punters happily facing down a 45-minute wait for a table and still recommend it to their mates is in a pretty enviable position, and various recent openings in London (Polpo & Polpetto, Draft House Battersea, Dishoom) seem to indicate this is the direction things are headed. In New York, with their restaurant scene ever so slightly ahead of the curve, this trend is even more evident and Big Apple diners have become quite accustomed to playing the table lottery in the city's hippest (and busiest) dining spots. Whether as a paying customer you think such arrangements are commendably egalitarian or a giant, frustrating pain in the rear end probably depends on how much you like to control the ebb and flow of your evenings. At one time, being the slightly autistic control freak, I despised anywhere that couldn't guarantee I could turn up, sit down and eat at a particular time, but I like to think my attitude has mellowed over the years. After all, it's not the greatest hardship to knock back a pint or two in a Soho bar while waiting for a table to become available, especially if the end reward is a crispy pizzetti and a plate of warm stracchino.
So while I can understand the fact Wahaca doesn't take bookings may deter some (though based on the crowds and the queues last night, they're clearly in the minority), being ten steps away from the finest cocktail bar in London (Rules) meant that our 45-minute wait (after we'd put our names on the waiting list) passed in a cosy, Negroni-sodden blur. And when we returned at our allotted time, the table was ready and waiting for us as expected. Surely this is a far more pleasant experience than trying to book some other fashionable restaurant du jour (I'm looking at you, Deux Salons) and being told they want the spot back in a couple of hours?
But enough obsessing on the technicalities of getting a table, what of the food? Firstly, for a smart, popular spot in the heart of touristy Covent Garden, Wahaca is commendably good value. Between the two of us we ordered a recommended five 'street food' items - perhaps not quite a feast but plenty enough for a pleasant dinner - and a couple of tequila-based cocktails, and the bill came to just over £15 each. My margarita was very good, on the rocks in a thick tumbler and half-and-half salting on the rim, a nice touch, and a longer drink containing orange juice, vanilla and cinnamon was very easy to drink. Also, this being Mexican Day of the Dead, we were brought a couple of extra shots of tequila for free. Which always wins points in my book.
Pork pibil was my favourite of the street food dishes. Moist, spicy pork topped with pickled red onions, they dribbled rich marinade onto the plate as you bit into them, yet kept their shape well enough to remain finger food. Chicken mole was pleasant if slightly tame, yet still streets ahead of the awful (far more expensive) stuff at Cantina Laredo. Two chicken taquitos contained moist chicken and good crispy deep-fried tortilla, a surprisingly decent tomato salsa, and a topping of Lancashire cheese (the menu is studded with these little nods to localism); and chorizo and potato quesadilla, though tasting largely of cheese and not enough of their 'own recipe' Mexican chorizo, was still decent enough. The only dish that didn't work for me was the scarily-titled 'MSC mackerel', which although pretty fresh and with more nice tomato salsa sat on a thick dollop of nasty, cheap-tasting white mayonnaise - I don't know for sure where Wahaca get their mayo from, but if it was homemade, they need to revise their recipe.
It would be easy to complain about the food at Wahaca being a bit "safe", and indeed I found myself dousing some of what we were given last night in hot sauce, but I'd be the first to admit my abused palate isn't representative of the general population and at the very least it was all fresh, tasty, and - most importantly - cheap. I should also put a special mention in for the staff last night as they seemed calm and friendly despite the frantically busy restaurant and we never had to wait too long for anything. A perfectly decent dinner, then, in a perfectly nice restaurant that's obviously popular for a reason. Get in that queue.