Wednesday, 12 December 2012

This Mex is on Fire

La Bodega Negra @BodegaNegra 
9 Old Compton Street, London, W1T 6JF

Standing outside La Bodega Negra, where the words ''Adult Video'' and ''Peep Show'' are emblazoned in bright red neon on the windows, you almost have to check twice you've got the right place. But fortune favours the brave, and once you go down the unassuming stairway, the cellar opens up to reveal a lively space. I really loved the atmosphere and decor of the place. A macabre blend of SoHo, NYC (where the original branch is located) and Soho, London, it has a kind of Bohemian Day of the Dead feel, which matches the modern Mexican tapas menu.

Lamb Tacos

When I first saw the menu, I found it difficult to know where to start. The menu is divided into numerous sections, including starters, tacos, tostaditas, oysters, mains, grills, and so forth. Thankfully our waiter was very helpful in running through the menu, even telling us what combination of dishes would not work. Although the food is expensive, the level of attention we got made us feel very special and certainly was vastly superior to many other similarly expensively priced London restaurants we have been to.

After enjoying a couple of excellent cocktails (including a palate-cleansing Mezcal-based Pepino and a perfectly sweet-sour Apple and Elderflower Frozen Margerita), we started off with the tacos. We ordered one pair of soft shell crab tacos and one pair of lamb. They arrived on a sleek wooden holder, with the crab legs menacingly sticking out upwards. The flavours were simply fantastic. I was particularly taken aback by the incredibly tender pieces of crab, which were combined with guacamole and a sort of aioli-cocktail sauce. Having said that, the lamb was superb too; tender, comforting and perfect for a cold December's night. I'm really glad we didn't go for the default seared steak option that is common in most tex-mex restaurants, as it was great to taste some new taco flavour combinations.

Soft Shell Crab Tacos
Next up was the tostadito. We chose the roasted vegetable flavour, which consisted of a large corn tortilla, topped with charcoal grilled vegetables, queso, guacamole and a white sauce which I presumed was another sort of aioli. Even though it was the cheapest starter on the menu, the quality of the flavours was on par with the everything else in our meal.

Roast Vegetable Tostadito
The last of the starters were the camarones, the Bodega Negra signature dish. Here, chargrilled tiger prawns were covered in a spicy, chipotle-based sauce. The prawns were perfectly succulent, with a slight charred note. The sauce was quite spicy, but not too so (I didn't have to end up eating all of them, which is a good sign!) I still think the tacos were the best starter we had, but good quality prawns are always a big winner with me.

We decided to share one main dish between us, and went with the Mixed Seafood and Rice Cazuela, which is a sort of risotto cooked in fish stock and mixed with pieces of mussel, clams, squid and prawn. The taste of the rice was a bit salty for me (the presence of capers probably contributed to this), but the pieces of seafood (in particular the mussels) were impeccably cooked. Really good mussels are unfortunately very hard to come by in London, as they are usually over cooked into a rubbery mess. I suspect health and safety has some part to play here (probably for the best if you don't source top quality ones), but being able to taste soft, tasty mussels as they are meant to be enjoyed is a true treat. 

With the abundance of meat dishes in most restaurants I end up going to these days, it's a welcome relief to be able to savour such well sourced, excellently cooked seafood. It's always a challenge to do it right, and La Bodega Negra really stepped up here.

Lastly, we enjoyed a dessert (''very un-Mexican'' as our waiter put it), which was a rich chocolate torte with mole ice cream. The chocolate torte was good, but nothing really different from similar cakes you have in other restaurants. The ice cream was fantastic though, it almost reminded me of garam masala in its combination of cloves and cinammon (I must give that a go one day...a  kitchen disaster waiting to happen!)

So I have to say, I was really impressed by Bodega Negra tonight. I'd heard some slightly negative reviews from many other bloggers which I thought were unfair to say the least. Yes, it is expensive, but we've had other similarly priced meals which have really let us down. The portions are small, but nowhere near as insubstantial as something like Ceviche. It would be too expensive for me to go back on a regular basis, but you do get what you pay for in terms of food, service and atmosphere. A final word has to go out to the choice of music. I haven't heard ''Skeletons'' by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in a long, long time. Good call guys. I'll have to come back for more of the same.

La Bodega Negra on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Photos by Nathalie.

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