Thursday, 4 August 2016
Whether it's the experimental and creative nature of London's restaurateurs we have to thank, or the delightfully open-minded restaurant-going public, it seems every time you think this city's sheer variety and quality of places to eat out could not possibly get any more bewildering, another culinary trend leaps out of left-field to take everyone by surprise. It's a mug's game attempting to pinpoint exactly where any particular foodie fashion begins - did MeatEasy really kick off the burger craze, or did they simply crystallize a demand forged by places like Haché and Gourmet Burger Kitchen? Pitt Cue was many people's (including mine) formative BBQ experience, but where would they be without Bodean's, our original home-grown pitmasters? - but if ever a city can leap upon a thing, reinvent and reinvigorate it for a local audience and (a happy byproduct of the whole process) make some money out of it, it's London. With little home-grown culinary tradition to draw upon, we have instead made the world's our own.
The latest "thing", you may be aware, is Middle-Eastern fusion. Again, pinpointing exactly where it all began is nearly impossible and almost definitely pointless, but it's probably worth at least acknowledging the books of Anissa Helou and more recently Sabrina Ghayour for bringing Persian and Middle Eastern/Mediterranean cuisine into the public conscience, and for bringing ingredients like za'atar, sumac and preserved lemons into everyday (or at least, everyday foodie) usage.
There have always been Middle Eastern restaurants in London of course, but it is was with the arrival, direct from Tel Aviv, of the astonishing Palomar in 2014, then its sister the Barbary this year, that we began to see Middle Eastern ingredients repackaged in a variety of exciting ways and presented with renewed confidence.
Foley's head chef Mitz Vora is ex- Palomar, and his installation in this cozy spot in Fitzrovia is a sign of the speed at which this hugely influential group of restaurants is spreading its wings across the capital. Yet if you booked a table at Foley's expecting to get Palomar-lite, or at least Palomar-but-without-the-crazy-queues, then you're in for a bit of a surprise. The menu here, though clearly with certain nods to the Levant, is almost wilfully geographically unsettled, with Korean BBQ, nori-wrapped sushi and South American ceviche all featuring. And usually this would be a cause for concern, except something about the style of confidence of the place, evident partly in that short menu and the fact that it manages to list so many things you'd be very happy eating, suggests you're in safe hands. And so it proves to be.
Lotus root seeds are not something I'd come across before, and as I always like being surprised we were off to a great start. They were a pleasantly aerated texture and came covered in a remarkably punchy spice mix; the best way I can describe them is having the texture of Wotsits, and the flavour of chilli-spiked Marmite. Unusual and addictive.
Indonesian peanut crackers were kind of a savoury thin biscuit, nice and crunchy but not too dry, and came with a little pot of tomato chilli "sambal" which our waiter saw fit to announce as being "very, very hot" but which was actually only half as hot as the lotus root seeds which he'd not bothered to warn us about at all.
House sourdough was as good as you might expect from the people that brought us such incredible baked goods at Palomar (the cholla bread) and the Barbary (the Jerusalem bagel). We may have enjoyed it a little more had the waiter not swiped the fennel butter from the table after we'd had barely more than a taste of it, but I'm sure he only had our best interests at heart.
Ceviche endive "tacos" weren't actually tacos but some nicely marinated bits of seafood piled inside endive leaves. The endive itself wasn't too bitter (a problem it's often difficult to look past in raw endive) and in fact they made pretty good vehicles for the ceviche which was fresh and light and herby and very enjoyable indeed.
Aubergine with pomegranate and quinoa isn't perhaps the most dazzlingly exciting thing I've eaten all year but was still worth the effort with the pomegranate seeds adding a bit of crunch and the soft, curdy feta (very smooth and interesting stuff, quite unlike your supermarket feta), mixing in a touch of silky dairy.
The best, though, was still to come. It would be theoretically possible to criticise Foley's for loading too many ingredients onto every plate - the menu lists 6 or 7 elements for every dish but in reality arrives with far more, from a bewildering number of herbs and spices to bits and pieces of crunchy fried vegetables that act as little more than texture amidst the maelstrom of colours and flavours elsewhere. And much like the menu itself with its lack of geographical focus this should be a problem, and yet such is Foley's skill that the balancing act is pulled off superbly, and nothing is overwhelming or confusing.
This hake dish, for example, has at its heart the most beautifully cooked bit of fish, with a golden spiced crust, sat on bed of buttered kale and topped with a zingy coriander chutney. That should be enough. Anywhere else, that would be enough. But the crunchy chickpeas, fried sliced okra, pickled fennel, fried curry leaves, tamarind and coconut curry sauce, all these things seem like they'd overcomplicate things but actually create a far more nuanced and infinitely more enjoyable dish - a dance of textures and colours around the centrepiece of fresh hake. I thought it was absolutely wonderful.
There was also a green salad, containing so many ingredients I can't hope to repeat them all here but definitely at least lettuce, kale, avocado, onion, fennel, feta, quinoa, pistachio and segments of orange. It was dressed in a beautifully-balanced vinaigrette, sharp and well seasoned, every bit of vegetable bouncy and soaked in oil and herbs and spices from the top of the pile to the very bottom.
I'm afraid it was at this point on a weekday lunchtime we ran out of time and had to dash, so I can't tell you anything about Foley's dessert offering, or their cocktail list, or the variety and scope of their wine list. But I hope I've explained well enough by now that if Foley's do have any weaknesses (service was a bit over-zealous, as I've said, but it is early days) they certainly aren't anything to do with the food, which is not only exciting and memorable enough to have you grinning from ear to ear, but in some cases genuinely innovative, doing unusual things with unusual ingredients that I'm willing to bet you won't have seen anywhere else.
After the "difficult second album" syndrom of the Barbary, which I raced into like an eager puppy only to have my expectations somewhat punctured, it's both a surprise and a delight to report that Foley's, instead of copying any existing formulas or jumping on any other available bandwagons, is keeping up the standards and general spunky attitude of what came before whilst producing something completely and utterly new. And this, in a nutshell, is why it is so brilliant and, also, with its myriad of influences and cool creativity, why it couldn't exist anywhere else on the planet than London.
Foley's will almost certainly be in the next version of the app. Meanwhile, see where else is good.