I always like Mark Hix, since I watched him on Great British menu a few years back. Compared to other chefs on the programme, like Marcus Wareing and Nathan Outlaw, Hix came across as a more relaxed sort of guy, who didn't take himself too seriously. I was blown away by his Star-gazing pie - the first time I ever saw or heard of it. And it's such a fun dish! (with some prawn heads poking out of the golden crust of the pie, gazing at the stars above). I knew I wanted to eat his food (perhaps in a similar way that a love-struck teenager feels she wants to bear someone's child).
At that time he was still at the Ivy. And I knew my hubby and I, both commoners, would not get a table at the Ivy - at least not at a relatively short notice (I object to a booking that takes longer than 2-3 weeks, on a very feeble principle that in 3 weeks time I probably would have forgotten why I wanted to go and eat there in the first place). So I waited for Hix to open his own place, which he did, many times over in the past few years. And I still hadn't been to any places, even though they get really good reviews. I'm not sure why. It's one of those things. Hix slipped out of my mind, until a couple of months ago when I bumped into him in Soho, walking towards his restaurant on Brewer street. I was a bit star-struck in that 3 seconds of walking towards him, but it was a weird moment because, of course, he looked back at me with a very blank expression. That's what TV does to you. You feel you get to know someone over a course of a few months that the programme was running. He probably thought I was a Chinese tourist getting lost in Soho.
Anyway, that encounter reminded me that I wanted to try his restaurants, so eventually we made a booking for a Friday night at Hix Soho. As we entered, we thought the space was very interesting - a cross between a modern art gallery and a bar. Arts are scattered around the place - some poor stuffed animals by his friend, Damien Hurst, and other 'conceptual' pieces from his another friend, Tracey Emin. I found this one interesting.
It comprises of two cans tied and hung from the ceiling by a piece of red rope. I think I could make it better by making the rope blue. Or green. But what do I know about modern art?
Arts aside, the service was very friendly, but not imposing, from the start. We wanted to take time to look at the menu and see what other people order (nosy us!). So we ordered some pork crackling and apple sauce to nibble while we were perusing the menu.
Not a bad effort. The crackling crispy and nicely season. I would prefer it a bit thinner - probably by scraping out the layer of fat on the inner side. The apple sauce could have had more intense apple flavour. Overall it's very decent, but I prefer the foot-long crackling at the Draft House on Charlotte Street.
Hix's menu offers three main types of dishes - steaks, modern British food (like lamb or seafood with fancy accompaniments), and British comfort food (like pies, burger, or simple grills). From watching his stint at the Great British menu, I reckoned Hix is the master of comfort food done well, so we decided to go for roast free-range chicken with garlic sauce for main. A similar dish at his Tramshed restaurant in Shoreditch has been received very favourably by food critics. We decided to go for something simple, which would clearly show the skills of the chef (especially his restraint, which is lacking in many restaurants) and the quality of the ingredients.
While we waited (the chicken requires about 45 mins cooking time), we ordered some starters to share. The husband went for 'Heaven and Earth', which was black pudding served on the base of mashed potatoes with bits of apples and herbs in it. He enjoyed it immensely. But I guess black pudding is not for everyone. And even if this one is nice and light, I don't think I would enjoy the second half of the dish as much as the first half.
My starter was a charcuterie board. For £8, this offers excellent value (Central-London standard). I found the venison (on the left row) a bit too strong, but other pork salamis etc were fantastic.
Then the star of the show arrived at our table, bringing with it a lot of admiring glances and various expressions of food jealousy from other tables.
Some people might find the chicken a bit vulgar (my vegetarian friend did).
This simple dish is simply brilliant. Apart from the juicy, flavoursome meat and the perfectly crispy skin, what you can't see from the picture was the stuffing - which was the height of comfort food yumminess. I also loved the perfectly cooked pieces of chicken liver on the tray, and the baked garlic! YUM. Everything on that tray tasted very good, and very satisfying. Nothing was pretentious.
To top it up, the chicken came with a jug of the most delicious chicken gravy I have ever tasted. The flavour was so intensely chickeny - in a very very good way. The garlic bread sauce was good, but I am never a fan of bread sauce. And then, they brought this mountain of straw fries to the table (which by now had very little space left for any more food).
Trying to reach our five-a-day healthy living, we ordered cauliflower cheese as our veggie dish. I did not have time to take a photo of that. I was very busy eating.
The menu suggests that this chicken dish is for two to share. I say it's for a family of four (unless you are very very hungry). We ate half of it, and asked for the rest to be put in a doggy bag. They gave us posh doggy bags - the left over chicken and fries were packed in vacuum bags, so that the next evening when we ate it, the fries were still quite crispy after a minute or two in the microwave (I don't know how they did that. Amazing).
We would have had dessert had they not requested the table back at the end of our main. We were told at the time of the booking that we had 2 hours - which I guess would have been just enough if we went through the whole dining experience like assembly line workers. It was a shame. And they could not even find space for us at the bar downstairs, because it was a Friday night and they were extremely busy. We were very full anyway so we didn't mind, but I could see how that would annoy many people. And from a quick look at the reviews out there, the rush of the service was one of the things most complained about.
Another major complaint I came across was that the place was over-priced. I could see that if you order steak, which costs around £25-£35 excluding accompaniments, and which didn't look that big from our observation of other tables' dishes, you might be a bit disappointed. Or the suckling pig for two (£65, for about 3 slabs of pork, again from our observation of the next table). I think if you order the more expensive dishes for your starter (around £12-£15), and your main (around £30-£40), plus drinks and service, you may end up paying about £200 for two - which you might justifiably perceive as being over-priced for the casual dining experience offered here.
But we stuck to the simple dishes, our bill was very friendly (about £80 for the food, a carafe of wine, and service), and we were very happy with what we got.