Friday, April 6, 2012

HIX Soho and Mark's Bar in London

Mark Hix launched HIX Soho to great critical acclaim in 2009 and soon after won London’s Time Out Award for Best New Restaurant in 2010. The restaurant showcases Hix’s signature daily-changing menu of seasonal British food, as well as his eclectic collection of whimsical mobiles from celebrated YBA's — Young British Artists. Downstairs is the celebrated Mark’s, with its apothecary bar and eccentric cocktail list designed by mixologist Nick Strangeway. With accolades that keep resounding through the British press, I was intrigued about the Hix phenomenon and went to investigate.

Mark Hix

Celebrated chef, restaurateur and food writer Mark Hix, is known for his original take on British gastronomy. After 17 years working in the industry, he opened his first restaurant in 2008, the distinguished Hix Oyster & Chop House in Smithfield, and has since opened a further four establishments including Hix Oyster & Fish House in Lyme Regis, Hix Soho in London and the award-winning Mark's bar, all to great critical acclaim. Hix is frequently lauded as one of London’s most eminent restaurateurs with an unrivalled knowledge of 'ingredients with provenance'. He also has a monthly column in Countrylife, Fork and Esquire Magazine, a weekly column in the British newspaper, The Independent, and is the author of a number of cookbooks on British cuisine.

Mark Hix's most recent cookbook — Mark Hix British Seasonal Food
and the newest addition to my ever-growing culinary library

We started our night downstairs at Mark's, considered to be one of London's coolest bars. Leather chesterfields, smoky mirrors, ambient lighting, a long zinc bar that runs the length of the room and one of London's most eminent cocktail lists designed by the renowned Nick Strangeway, a legend on the London and International bar scene. 

Uber-mixologist Nick Strangeway

Mark's apothecary-style cocktail bar is the place to go to enjoy a more eccentric approach to drinking, with cocktails such as Hanky Panky, made with Beefeater Gin shaken with Antica Formula and Fernet Branca finished with orange zest; The Matador, a concoction that quenched the frequenters of the Cafe Royal during the era of the coronation of King George VI; The Royal Bermuda Yacht Club made with Mount Gay Rum shaken with Falernum, fresh lime and Cointreau; or The Pegu Club, which was a favourite at the British Officers Club on the Rangoon River in Burma, made with Gin shaken with Curacao, fresh lime juice, Angostura and orange bitters. With all these choices, I went with my classic favourite, a Hendrick's Gin Martini, served with a spear of cucumber.

Mark's Bar with apothecary-style bottles and potions

The bartender at Mark's the night we were there, was a lovely fellow with a great sense of humour. He had a large cauldron of some fragrant elixer bubbling away in front of us, which looked very medieval. He said it was lemon sherbet, a sweet ingredient that's added to some of Mark's cocktails, and proceeded to pour me a small shot glass of the sweet potion to taste. It was quite thick and sweet, rather like limoncello, but more tart — it was bloody good. I asked him how it was made. He said it's about equal parts lemon juice, lemon zest and sugar which are cooked down over a low heat until the mixture reduces to the desired viscosity, and then left to cool. It was so tasty, I may even try to make it when we get home.

Mark's Bar Hendricks Martini with a slice of cucumber, with the extra little bit, on the side

Hix serves their beer in funky old English silver tankards

The glassware used at Mark's was very retro and quirky, from huge silver tankards for serving Hix's own beer brand from Dorset, to teacups mounted on Martini stems, retro champagne stems and antique martini shakers. Even going to the loo was a journey, with pieces from Hix's collection of young British artists, such as a mammoth watercolour by Harland Miller, a tongue-in-cheek take on tattered Penguin classics. 

Harland Miller - 'Hard as Fuck' made as a watercolour and pencil on paper

With dinner reservations looming, we climbed the stairs to the main dining room, HIX Soho. A cool modern space with sensible wooden tables and chairs, the room is laid back and comfortable with casual dish towel-style napkins, neon red pepper mills and signature silver salt and pepper shakers, available in their shop downstairs at £87.50 each. Nice, but not that nice.

The cool and modern interior of HIX Soho

Dish towel-style napkins adorn each place setting

Waiting for our dinner companion, we ordered a bottle of Berry Bros. & Rudd Claret and a bowl of Evesham radishes with homemade mayonnaise and celery leaf salt and Blythburgh pork crackling with Bramley apple sauce to start. Having never tried pork cracklings before, it was a bad precedent. They were vey good, but better yet, were the organic radishes. The leafy ends were so young and perfect that they disappeared along with the wee little baby radishes.

Berry Bros. & Rudd Claret 

Evesham radishes with homemade mayonnaise and celery leaf salt

Blythburgh pork crackling with Bramley apple sauce 

Still waiting, we ordered half a dozen of the Carlingford Lough Rock oysters, which were fine, but not as good as the oysters we had earlier at Elliot's in Borough Market — and half the price.

Half a dozen Carlingford Lough Rock oysters

Our french waitress, concerned that our guest still had not turned up, poured a glass of wine in his glass and said that would be our lucky charm to bring him to us. Amazingly, it worked. In walked Harry. Befuddled by last night's daylight saving time, he hadn't moved his watch forward. Pleased to have our happy group together, we enjoyed the bottle of wine and ordered dinner. Intrigued by the Aberdeenshire porterhouse steak on the menu, we ordered the large version that serves three, along with the Cauliflower Cheese and signature HIX Frites. Hix also serves a whole Roast Woolley Park Farm free-range chicken for two, which a couple at the next table ordered and looked very good. 

The Manager-Sommelier arrives with our steak and proceeds to carve

Aberdeenshire porterhouse steak for three

Cauliflower cheese

Hix bowl of frites

True to the Mark Hix's commitment to showcase a menu of seasonal British food, two traditional English puds were on the dessert menu — Steamed pudding with marmalade and creme Anglaise and a Sea buckthorn posset, a popular dessert during the middle ages.

Steamed pudding with marmalade and creme Anglaise

Sea buckthorn posset

An engaging background during our dinner was the dazzling array of mobiles positioned around the restaurant, and also downstairs at Mark's. Hix is friends with interesting and important characters, including every contemporary British artist you've ever heard of, several of whom, Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Tim Noble and Sue Webster, have provided Hix with art, including bespoke mobiles which hang over the noisy, cafe-style dining room designed by Martin Brudnizki.  They lend a delightful quirkiness to the space, and make eating at HIX Soho, like  sharing a meal at the Tate Modern. A unique opportunity to see a great collection of contemporary British art up close, the Sommelier escorted me around HIX, explaining each of the pieces and the artists who created them. It was very generous of him to take the time, but by then, we were the last patrons in the restaurant. Time to head home, and tomorrow we would be doing just that — flying back to Toronto after two weeks in our lovely Umbrian farmhouse in Italy, Casa del Lauro, and a sojourn in London at the beginning and end of our trip. The best of all worlds. 

Damian Hirst - 'Boullibalanced Mobile' made with fish, perspex and steel 

Miranda Donovan - 'Kitchen Wall' made with stainless steel poles, resin and foam bricks

Sarah Lucas - 'Pie Mobile' made with Fray Bentos tins, steel poles and an electrical motor

Stephen Webster - 'Jaws' made with crystals, Foam and fishing wire

Mark's Bar Lemon Sherbet

6 lemons, zest and juice
7 tbsp white sugar

Grate zest of 6 lemons and add to 7 tablespoons of castor sugar. Pound together and then add the lemon juice. Heat to dissolve the sugar and reduce as needed. Strain, store it in bottles and refrigerate until required.

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