Monday, 16 April 2018

Freak Scene, Soho

In a city as large and diverse as London, with a population eager and willing to spend their money on whatever latest food obsession flares up, whether it's pasta or burgers or steamed Taiwanese buns, it's perhaps surprising that genuine blue-sky experimentation, no-holds-barred eccentricity, sheer boggle-eyed madness, is still a relatively rare thing. Yes, in these uncertain times you can understand why familiar comfort food would be an easier sell to investors than anything too, well, weird, but as Londoners avant-garde experimentation and counter-culturalism forms part of our very identity. So why not restaurants? How many places can you point to that are genuinely unleashed, and where nothing has come between the practicalities of running a profit and the sheer unrestrained bedlam of an unconventional chef's raw ideas?

To find the shortest journey between the blueprint and the result, and where the product available to buy is as close as possible to whatever crazy concept the creators first came up with, it's a good idea to turn to street food and popups. Only in the anything-goes environment of the popup, where the stakes are low and failure very much is an option, would anyone discover there was a market for blobs of water thickened with agar, or a pitch-black grilled cheese sandwich made with charcoal bread and Ilchester black cheddar (coloured with carob, apparently). These things are just as likely to leave you with permanent psychological damage than going back for more, but how nice that we live in a city where they're allowed to exist?

One look at the Freak Scene menu and you can see why this place started life as a popup. I can't think of many investors that would be happy to rent a prime central Soho location (where Barrafina used to be, no less) and turn it over to a group of people serving "Caramalised[sic] Foie Gras Lettuce Cups" and "Salmon sashimi 'Pizza' with truffle-ponzu", but it's thanks to the popularity and success of a stint in Farringdon that they now find themselves here at their first proper permanent site, with a mandate to be every bit as unhinged now as they were then.

The first thing that arrived - "Miso Grilled Black Cod Tacos with Sushi Rice and Scorched Red Chilli Salsa" - was an early indication that the needle would be set firmly on "WTF" for at least some of the evening. Individual elements of the dish were fantastic - bubbly-crisp taco casings, top quality miso-glazed black cod (as you might imagine from the man who spent years as the head chef at Nobu), fluffy room-temperature sushi rice you'd be delighted to be served elsewhere under a slice of raw fish. Together, the textures fought rather than complimented each other - particularly the soft fish next to the rice which made them both feel disconcertingly under-cooked - but I'd be lying if I said I didn't find enough to enjoy. Even just for the novelty factor.

Chilli Crab and Avocado Wonton 'Bombs' were relatively more normal insofar as crab and avocado is a tried-and-tested combo that you'd have to really go out of your way to mess up, and the little crisp parcels actually made a perfect delivery system; you just ate them with your fingers like you would cheese on a cracker. Spritzed with fresh lime juice and spiked with red chilli, there was plenty of crab and plenty of flavour, a bit of Asian-fusion fun.

The house chips were intriguingly subtitled "A Thousand Leaves", and turned out to be a kind of Quality Chop layered confit style, and incredibly moreish. I would have preferred a thicker jalapeno mayo - it was a bit difficult to get any kind of coating on the potato which was frustrating - but even so, a lot of work had gone into these and it's basically impossible not to enjoy sticks of flaky potato cake.

Hangar steak tataki salad was the least crazy of the dishes, and probably the most enjoyable. With soft strips of rare-seared beef, coriander, lettuce pomegranate seeds and crisp garlic flakes all soaked in a wonderfully sharp dressing ("onion ponzu" on the menu but I imagine that's not the half of it), it had all the fire and flavour of something from the kitchens at Kiln or Smoking Goat, and as anyone who's been to those places will tell you, that's quite the compliment.

But soon enough we were back in Bonkersville. I think the best way of describing my reaction to it is this: While I do like the fact I live in a city so experimental and diverse a restaurant feels able to sell a dish of hot pork belly and cold mussels wrapped in lettuce leaves, and I'm glad that someone somewhere feels that a dish of hot pork belly and cold mussels wrapped in lettuce leaves is something that should be served, I'm afraid I am not the target audience for a dish of hot pork belly and cold mussels wrapped in lettuce leaves. I just think hot pig and cold seafood should be kept a certain distance from each other. They shouldn't touch.

Finally, and somewhat in contrast to the rather bijou portion sizes up until this point, "Chicken-fried chicken" was a huge leg and thigh portion sat on top of a pile of nuts in a soy-based sauce, and we struggled to finish it. Not because it was inedible, though parts were a bit cotton-woolly (they'd used some kind of double-cooking method, first confit-ing then frying, which I think reduced the moisture content somewhat) but just because there was so much of it. As with much of what had come before, it danced a fine line between exciting and baffling, between experimental and just plain odd, and we found ourselves veering between enjoyment and uncertainty with each mouthful.

But isn't that the point of operations like this? Wouldn't the world be a boring place if there weren't chefs like Scott Hallsworth willing to throw every trick up his sleeve at once into one of the most wilfully esoteric and barmy menus in town, and to hell with what people think? And because of this approach, and even despite it, you'd still have to have a heart of stone not to get something out of Freak Scene - for every challenge like hot pork and cold mussels there's crab wontons or beef tataki salad to retreat back into and calm the nerves. It's all part of the fun.

So although I definitely had issues with Freak Scene, and you're more than likely to have the same, like the raindrop cake or the black cheese toastie surely we can at least be glad this odd little operation exists. A singular vision from an eccentric and fun-loving team, its arrival on Frith Street makes London a more bizarre, and more exciting place, qualities in these uncertain times that are, sadly, increasingly hard to come by. It's not perfect, but it is unique. And more than enough to be proud of.


I was invited to Freak Scene and didn't see a bill, but a bit of maths tells me it would have been about £40/head with a bottle of wine.


Ned said...

"I just think hot pig and cold seafood should be kept a certain distance from each other" This looks like it's a riff on bo ssam, which is served just this way in Korea: braised pork, chilled oysters and chilli sauce wrapped in a sesame leaf. Delicious!

Anonymous said...

The next restaurant better not get a 7...

Unknown said...

Sitting here enjoying the food - the experience - I guess the only word that describes is AMAZING! The food is amazing and the tram is close, connected and there to make it special! Bringing back friends here soon