Wednesday, 22 March 2023

Zapote, Shoreditch

One of the best things about being in San Diego twice a year (apart from the zoo... and seeing the family of course) is its proximity to the Mexican border and to Tijuana. Mexico's second largest city is home to a breathtaking variety of restaurants at all price points, from humble roadside birria stands to multi-starred fine dining joints, and everything in between. This is a part of the world that knows how to eat, and eats well.

On a recent trip I found myself in the smart Colonia Cacho neighbourhood in the shadow of the giant Grand Hotel Tijuana, and at restaurant Oryx, a dynamic little operation headed (on the food side of things at least) by Ruffo Ibarra, who's spent some time in Michelin starred joints througout Europe as well as, more recently, local hero Javier Plascencia's restaurant Romesco in Bonito. We ate grilled octopus with corn crackling and habenero ash, horse mackerel tiradito, and black tacos with sole, beetroot mayonnaise and pickled cabbage, and left with a bill of about half what you might expect to pay in the US. Or at least, we would have done had we not 'discovered' the speakeasy cocktail bar at the back and ordered a few drinks there before the Uber back to the border.

Sitting down in the spacious, serene dining room at Zapote in Shoreditch (some of you may recognise the space previously occupied by St Leonard's, and Eyre Brothers before that), and glancing through the menu printed on charmingly ruffled recycled paper, I began to feel the warm embrace of familiarity. The dishes (if not quite the prices, but I don't think you can complain much about those either in London in 2023) seem lifted straight out of a modern, high-end Tijuana restaurant like Oryx, with top British ingredients treated to a variety of Nouvelle-Mexican preparations. In short, there wasn't a single thing I didn't want to eat, which is a situation as exciting as it is terrifying. What if we missed something wonderful?

In the end, and after much deliberation, we ended with what we hoped would be a representative selection of haute-Baja cuisine, beginning (of course) with tortilla chips and guacamole. The guacamole was blindingly good, smooth and creamy and zinging with lime, but the chips (sorry, totopos) were notable too, with a nice thick crunch and gentle dusting of salt.

Whitebait tostada were every bit as much fun as we hoped they'd be, the little beasties fried to greaseless perfection, spritzed with lime and with a couple of slices of chili to perk them up. Also lovely was the garlic mayonnaise underneath, never a bad match with fried fish.

But things were about to get kicked into another gear. Seabass aguachile with pickled fennel, dill and cucamelon took me right back to the tiradito at Oryx, with huge fresh chunks of raw fish sat in a deliriously moreish dressing of salt, lime and chili. To get a raw fish dish this good in Mexico would still be an impressive achiement - to have it served on a cold, wet night in Shoreditch is nothing short of a miracle.

At this point, Zapote had done more than enough to reassure we were in safe hands, and from here on the arrival of each new dish was met with wide-eyed eagerness. Secreto skewers came as dainty chunks of meltingly tender pork, given a robust grilling over coals to get some nice dark crunchy patches, and served with more lovely guacamole studded with dainty pieces of chicharrones.

Neat little squares of chicken thighs, boasting a delicate crisp skin and soft flesh, were accompanied by a mole sauce apparently made with peanuts. I'm not much of a mole expert - or much of a fan of it either usually, come to that - but as a dark, chocolatey foil to the poultry this worked very well.

Beef tartare had a great balance between funky aged beef and something citrussy - possibly lime but not just lime - mixed in to great effect. Yes, admittedly, I wished they'd given me an actual complete roast bone marrow instead of three chunks of marrow inside a fake (or at least re-usable) bone, but once it was all mixed in together the effect was the same. £7, too, for ingredients like this is pretty good value.

And finally, crab and black bean pozole which had loads of fresh white crab meat and a very attractive preparation even if one of the ingredients - some kind of pulse I couldn't identify, not the black bean but something else - had a rather offputting texture. There's a chance this could have been a very authentic ingredient imported from Mexico but hadn't made the journey very well. Either way, there was more than enough to enjoy elsewhere.

I realise I should at least try to separate my delight at having finally found a proper top-end Baja-style restaurant in London from the objective experience of eating here. I know I love this stuff, and I can vouch for its authenticity (as much as a Mexican restaurant in London can ever be truly authentic) but will anyone who isn't an aguachile and bone marrow taco enthusiast find as much to love? Am I just blinded by the novelty, over the reality?

Well, I've thought about it, and have decided no - it's not just the novelty and it's not just that this is one of my favourite cuisines. Zapote is, objectively, an extremely impressive restaurant, serving interesting ingredients in intelligent and exciting ways, for really not very much money. Anyone, I'm sure, would enjoy a meal here, from a few snacks at the bar (I've just spotted oxtail quesadilla on the bar menu, so I'll have to go back for those) with a well-made cocktail to a full a la carte in the main dining room and petits fours (fudge and passionfruit jelly bites, amazing things), cosseted by capable staff and matched with an geographically liberal wine list. It's all just... great. It really is. And a hell of a lot cheaper than a flight to Tijuana.


I was invited to Zapote and didn't see a bill. After some brief calculations though I think the bill would have come to about £75pp, which sounds about right for this quality. Suspiciously good exterior and charcoal range photos by Sim Canetty-Clarke, all the other rubbish ones are by me.


Funklord said...

I always enjoy reading your reviews but I was a very short way in before making a bet to myself this was an invitation. The last few years have been brutal for hospitality and I don't blame you for taking the odd paid gig but I can't remember the last time I was wrong with your reviews, I'm respectfully suggesting you need to be more subtle when you aren't paying the bill?

Chris Pople said...

MORE subtle?