41 Dean Street, Soho, W1D 4PY www.ducksoupsoho.co.uk
Cost per person without wine: £30
IT’s all part of the Soho experience – the perch at the bar, the swiveling stool, getting up close and personal with the waitress pushing past you.
Duck Soup, which is staffed by alumni of Mark Hix’s restaurant empire, follows on in this informal tradition. The restaurant is not a drop-in-for-a-bite-to-eat kind of place, so don’t expect petit-fours and after-dinner espressos. This is one of many Soho no-reservations restaurants, so if you go at peak hours there’ll be a wait to get in. But once you’re in, you’re in. It’s a place for those in the know, because unless you make a specific journey to it, you’ll walk right past it.
The room is narrow and deep, and the feel of the place is crackly-record cool: Jim Morrison on vinyl wafts through the restaurant. The hand-written menu hangs from a meat hook by the doorway. We stare at it a lot, for 20 minutes in fact, because that’s how long the wait is on a Tuesday night. Luckily Rory, the manager, is a well-mannered host and before long we have drinks in hand, which happens to be the naughtily-named house beer (you’ll know what I mean when you see the menu). Natural wines line the walls, many supplied by Guiseppe Mascoli, who owns Blacks members club across the road. Beware of the eccentric Barbera, which has the whiff of manure – a strange and not entirely drinkable beast.
Rather than cram into the tiny tables along the wall, we sit at the bar, back-to-back with other couples and threesomes. You’ll find it cosy if you like being in the thick of things, but if you like to spread out when you eat, you may well find the bar irritatingly cramped. That said, at Duck Soup the tables don’t offer much space either.
I like the bar arrangement, though, chiefly for the access you have to the head chef, Julian Biggs, who frequently wanders back here proffering freshly sliced bread or a shiny slab of marinated foie gras on a wooden board.
Now for the food. It is almost excellent – the dishes themselves are well-put-together and original, but it’s the detail that lets them down. A pot-roasted quail scattered with girolles mushrooms and plumped with rich stock is delicious, but wilting leeks underneath are gritty with dirt. Thin slices of raw cod topped with chilli and fronds of fennel are terribly unbalanced: salty yet bland, lacking the sour of lime they promised. Juicy clams with Fino sherry are at first sensational. There are complex textures and flavours going on in the pot, such as wonderful pasta that is crunchy where it catches on the bottom, also working to thicken the broth. But the grit of sand ruins a lovely dish; occasional sand is fine as a reminder that fresh stuff doesn’t come from a supermarket shelf, but when the joy of clams is interrupted by recurrent grit, it’s just unpleasant. The gurnard (a wonderful fish in bouillabaise), and clam stew topped with dollops of yellow aioli is a deep, rich and punchy dish with beautiful poached scallops, but the fish is tough, which suggests that it’s been poached too long or left on too high a heat.
Despite these quibbles, I’d say that Duck Soup is great for an impromptu night out. Go late, grab a group of friends and share that slab of foie gras. If you’re into the bustle of Soho bar-restaurants such as Barrafina and Polpo, then this is for you.