Review: Duck Soup Soho
Yes, it was a Marx Brothers movie. And no, it’s not on the menu.
With its two most frequently-asked FAQs put to rest, we push forward into the tiny, thumping house party that is Duck Soup.
I love these London moments. London is one of those indefatigable global cities, like New York, Sydney or Barcelona – a gigantic, sprawling organism that oozes energy from every pore. Living there might exhaust you, but a short stay is an electric charge, an injection of anonymity and adrenaline that keeps you invigorated for weeks.
Orchestrated by chef Julian Biggs, Duck Soup Soho was one of the hottest openings last year in London. And judging by the crowd spilling onto the street, things haven’t exactly quietened down.
Stepping inside, the first thing I see are three women tucking into a whole John Dory at a table for two. At the counter, a sweating bartender is plating up tapas, pouring glasses of wine beneath a drinks menu scrawled with black marker on white tiles. I can’t resist ordering a bottle of ‘F*cking Hell’, a German pilsner.
‘Hell’ is German for bright. The other word requires no translation.
The walls are whitewashed. The menus are written in biro. I assume this is a temporary thing, a holding solution until something sturdier is printed up. Take a look at its website, however. Every day, fresh lunch and dinner menus are handwritten, photographed, and posted online.
Yes, this could all be seen as arch and silly. But the atmosphere is infectious. The Doors’ ‘LA Woman’ is playing on vinyl. There are paraffin candles. The conversation is loud. It feels like an art college party in a retro British pop-up, right down to the smelly toilets. And it’s infused with the (Duck) souped-up, anything-can-happen mojo of Soho on a Friday night.
We chance our arm for a table, and get one. It’s in the basement, however, so we follow the host through the teeming masses, taking two stools at a separate bar downstairs. I need the light of my phone to read the menu, and order a second bottle of you-know-what.
The options are broken down into sections. Small plates include the likes of chipirones (squid) with fennel and chilli, or duck rillette with cornichons, for £3.50. “Kitchen” plates are charged at £7 or £14, depending on the offering. £7 will buy you chopped hangar steak with toast, buffalo mozzarella with guacamole, or char-grilled quail with aubergine and Tahini, for instance.
£14 ups the stakes, securing anything from the aforementioned John Dory, grilled whole, to a pot-roast partridge, or the alarmingly titled “whole crab & mayonnaise”.
We kick off with a selection of starters – pig’s cheek, mozzarella and a plate of bitter leaves. No artful arrangements here; it’s all about butch bistro fare and seasonal ingredients. The cheese is smooth and clotty, kicking nicely off the tart celery and radicchio. The pig’s cheek is rich, assertive. Everything is fresh as a daisy. It’s a fluky but super-fresh combination of textures.
Next up – we can’t resist – is the crab. The menu listing is not misleading. I have visions of a mutant sea monster hauled out of the sea to be deposited on the plate, and lo and behold, an enormous crab arrives garnished only with a dollop of mayonnaise and a lemon. That’s it.
We get a cracker, a picker, knives and forks (though strangely, no finger bowls) and go for it. After a Sound FX anthology’s worth of cracking, splurting, licking, gnawing, sucking and biting, we manage to extricate enough meat out of the body, legs and claws to feed two adults. It’s a messy effort that probably makes a better story than a meal, but what the heck.
Strangely, dessert is awful – a dull-as-dishwater crème caramel that comes with a sweet sauce but tastes like flavourless, custardy gunk. We should have gone for the bitter chocolate tart. Or the pear and almond chocolate tart. Or the roast figs, chestnuts and crème fraîche.
But you know what? We don’t care. It’s been a short and super-charged meal, a shot of London just when it was needed. If they hadn’t already settled on Duck Soup (the Groucho Club is next door), I’d suggest they borrow their name from the third bottle of beer I’m about to order.
Dinner for two, with three bottles of you-know-what, came to £41.53/€52.58, tip extra.
41 Dean Street, London; +44 (0)20 7287 4599; ducksoupsoho.co.uk
This review originally appeared in The Irish Examiner.
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