Quo Vadis, in London's Soho, has been around since the 1920s and inevitably has had its ups and downs. Last time we were there, four years ago, we experienced one of its downs (noisy; inattentive service; too much stuff hanging on the walls; forgettable food). But the arrival of a new chef (Jeremy Lee, late of Blueprint Café), a redecoration and a great deal of positive word of mouth drew us back for a post-theater supper in mid-March.
It was like visiting a brand new restaurant that had opened in a familiar site: It was the same dining room but cleared of excess decoration and far more pleasant. The service was snappy, friendly and well-informed. The brief daily-changing menu was full of temptations (including oysters and hare and beef pie) and offered terrific value. In addition to the reasonably priced à la carte listings, there's a £20 ($32) three-course daily menu or £2.50 less for two courses.
Jackie and I started with one of the "bites," as smaller but not air-light appetizers are called: Bloater paste. Sounds awful, doesn't it? But it has been around forever as a teatime savory sandwich filling. This one was homemade from lightly smoked fat herrings and was flavorful and of just-right spreadable consistency, served with a little bun cut in half. If you don't like "fishy" fish you will hate it; I loved it, and it was a treat to see it on the menu.
A smoked eel sandwich with lots of oozy, creamy horseradish sauce tasted fabulous, with a perfect balance between the firm, smoky, fatty eel and the sharp horseradish, but the substantial grilled bread made it difficult to eat without knife and fork. I'd have preferred something softer that didn't squeeze out the filling when you chomped. But perhaps that is the idea: to get people to giggle at the mess they're making.
Next, Jackie ordered crab soup, which was one of the best crab things I've ever tasted. It isn't a chunky soup full of crabmeat: it is a deep brown translucent broth with almost uncanny crab flavor, thanks to all the shells and goo (euphemistically known in the UK as "brown crabmeat") that went into it. It was served with good rouille and melba-toast-like croutons. If it is on the menu and if you're not allergic to crab, order it without fail.
I had brill -- a medium-firm flatfish we don't get in New York -- served with diced celeriac tossed with bitter puntarelle greens. The fish was perfect; the accompaniment was a terrific idea that I shall copy at home, but Quo Vadis's celeriac lacked flavor and texture.
A small lemon posset (almost like a lemon curd) with rhubarb was tart and sweet and delicious.
In addition to normal dining out, Quo Vadis is a good pre- or post-theater restaurant, and the bar, with a shorter menu, is open from noon to midnight.
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Mark Hix is an important guy on the London -- indeed the U.K. -- food scene. Over several years, as chef and culinary director of the Caprice Group (The Ivy, J. Sheekey, Le Caprice itself, etc.), he developed dishes and wrote menus that helped shape the way Londoners (reasonably prosperous ones, anyway) dine out. Since he left that job, he has written books and articles, been on TV and opened a number of restaurants.
His latest, Hix Belgravia , opened in February. It is in the new Belgraves hotel near Sloane Square and hence near the Royal Court Theatre. It was after a play there that we had our supper (the reservations people were hospitably flexible about time of arrival once they knew we were coming after the show).
For a Hix restaurant, this one is small. That's a good thing, as it is quieter than, say, the clamorous Soho outpost. It also looks like a bland restaurant in a hotel, though once it is full of people that impression fades. The menu covers quite a lot of ground and tends toward the hearty, with plenty of native ingredients (fish with sea purslane; silver mullet with cockles and stonecrop), typical of a Hix operation.
We started with a shared first course: crisp roesti potatoes topped with "brown crab meat" mayonnaise, topped with regular crab meat, topped with a herb-scented salad. The mayo gave it richness, the salad freshness, the white crab meat delicacy, the potatoes crunch: a textbook dish that struck every chord. Jackie then had pumpkin and gorgonzola cannelloni. The choice of cheese was a canny one: gorgonzola is very creamy yet has marked flavor that always works well with pasta -- and that lifted this dish out of the realm of comfort food to something more interesting.
I had a plain grilled pork chop! With apple sauce! It was slightly pink, as requested, juicy and porky. And the apples had really been made into a sauce not the usual compote. With a side of nice (but not astonishing) potato croquettes, it was satisfying and simple.
Dessert was pink rhubarb embedded in a ring of crystalline Champagne gelatin, with bergamot ripple ice cream. Apart from the too-mild bergamot flavor, this was as good as it looked: just-sour-enough rhubarb in a delicate gel.
We drank an aromatic but dry English white wine from Herefordshire (Coddington "Bacchus"), enthusiastically recommended by our charming and efficient waiter.
I'm not sure that this is a restaurant you need to travel halfway across town to visit; anyway, there's bound to be a Hix near wherever you are in central London. But if you are in the area, don't think twice. It's one of the better options within spitting distance of Sloane Square.
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Quo Vadis. 26-29 Dean Street, Soho, London W1D 3LL; +44 (0) 207 437 9585; www.quovadissoho.co.uk (reservations can be made from that website). Depending on ordering strategy, a meal for two with wine will cost around £80-100 ($130-160), and there are good prix-fixe menus at £17.50 and £20. Bottles of wine start at around £20. Open Monday to Saturday, lunch and dinner (bar open noon to midnight without a break).
Hix Belgravia. Belgraves Hotel, with a separate entrance on Pont Street, London SW1X 9EJ; +44 (0) 203 189 4850; www.hixbelgravia.co.uk (reservations can be made from that website). Our late-night meal cost £105 ($168) including wine and service; a more substantial dinner for two would likely cost £25 or £30 more. Open every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner.