Best-Mex: Soho’s sizzling-hot new eaterie deserves the hype

LA BODEGA NEGRA
9 Old Compton Street, W1 5JF, 020 7758 4100
FOOD *****
SERVICE *****
ATMOSPHERE *****
Cost per person without wine: £50

You know The Box? The impossible-to-get-into night-club, beloved of Keira Knightley and Jude Law and every other Soho-partying A-lister? Well, Serge Becker – who is behind The Box as well as the super-cool L’Esquina in New York – has teamed up with restaurateur-about-town Will Ricker to bring you La Bodega Negra, an impossible-to-get-into restaurant, lounge and café.

OK, it’s not impossible to get in. But it’s hard. The first time I tried, my friend and I were turned away because of a “private party” that had included, according to certain newspapers the next day, date night for a super-model. But on Wednesday last week, I made it in for dinner.

Now, it would be easy to be cynical about the kind of buzz surrounding Bodega – London, particularly Soho, is going through a rash of New York-intensity fads and this is the latest. It’s just a Mexican, folks! Margaritas, tacos, what’s the fuss? Kate Moss likes it; so what?

So: a lot. It’s absolutely brilliant. It’s worth waiting for a booking, or sucking up to whoever you need to in order to get in because the chances are, you’ll want to become a regular. Rarely is this combination of atmosphere, cooking, cocktails and service to be found, at least in London. You not only feel like you’re at the best party in town, you feel like you’re being looked after at it. Staff smile, they are not snooty, they do their best, they’re efficient.

We skipped the ceviche bar and café – which has a similar menu to the 100 seater restaurant – and entered the premises via the neon-lit “sex shop” entrance (right next to Ed’s Diner on the corner of Old Compton Street and Moor Place). Head downstairs and you find yourself in a large, dark room of exposed brick, glittering cushions, mirrors and nooks and crannies. It’s sexily boho rather than tacky – seductively contoured, buzzing rather than cacophonous.

You really must start at the bar because the cocktails are good. Fragrant, clean, not too sweet. The margarita was lovely – as were the mojitos. The Mesqual had cucumber water and lemon; the French 85 had champagne and gin. They’re quite small, but only cost around £8. Have the oaty, home-made tortillas with very fresh guacamole to go with.

So here’s what we had for dinner, and I advise you order all of it, because it was all fantastic. First, the tiger prawns (served in ramekins and glistening with oil, deeply herbed), bbq octopus (punchy and warm, thickly soaked in a deliciously burned-tasting marinade); prawn tacos (the tacos arrive beautifully lined up on a long plate with special grooves for the shells) and “al pastor”; pork tacos which come in apple slices rather than corn, topped with roasted pineapple.

For your mains, you need to have the slow-roasted lamb “barbacoa salsa borracha”. I don’t even like lamb. But this was something else: silky, caramelly and formidable in size. Eating it was not only sensually satisfying, it felt regal; the sort of meat a Renaissance king might tear into on a feast-day.

Not far off the lamb is the whole seabass with red and green adobe, a sauce of ground chillies, herbs, garlic, tomatoes and vinegar. In my opinion, you can’t go wrong with such a combination of ingredients, and the ballsiness of this bass was brilliant. It made me wonder how I’ve ever enjoyed the blander sort served in modern European restaurants. Spit-roast chicken (half or whole) is a homely, glistening platter of legs and breast, served with a rich gravy and marvellous roast potatoes.

For sides, we were unexpectedly blown away by green rice and cowboy beans; the former a pleasingly dry, herby mixture that soaked up the plethora of oils and marinades and salsas oozing off the meat; the latter a bowl of salty, gloopy white beans with chorizo. Divine.

If you can manage dessert, churros (dry donuts) with dolce de lecce and chocolate are spot-on decadent without being too sickly, and the pannacotta with hibiscus fruits is perfect.

By the time we left, Keira Knightley, Stephen Merchant and Alison Mosshart of The Kills were settling in and – if their experience was anything like mine – they’ll be back. Bodega’s A-list appeal isn’t going anywhere. But the rest of us aren’t going anywhere, either – until we get a table, that is.