Despite every intention, I’ve never made it to Le Esquina, Serge Becker’s notorious SoHo Mexican restaurant, accessed via secret door and clipboard patrol. Like all such scenester spots, it’s no longer the impossible-to-book place it once was, so of course, I don’t want to go anymore. But then, his beyond-hot MK nightclub was the first place I ever went in New York, about 1000 years ago, so, kudos to me. Yay. La Bodega Negra is a Soho reinvention of SoHo’s La Esquina – right down to a more overt, no-reservations cantina around the corner. From the outside the main restaurant looks like a sex shop, albeit an unnervingly pristine one. Its neon is more Tim Noble and Sue Webster than the Old Compton Street of pornier days now past. Once you’ve made it inside, past two check-in desks, and a lady in a polka dot shorts-suit with feathered trilby, you’re in what might be the prettiest, buzziest basement in London.
It’s very dark, very sexy and very 2012. The décor is all vintage-looking estancia tiling, rough plaster, reclaimed shopfront letters, upturned pianos, taxidermy and curtained-off alcoves. Despite a few buttoned-down banker types and a single baseball cap sighting (with blazer and shirt too, people!), everyone looks like they “might be someone”. The bar staff have Alex James/Nuno Mendes flicks and the punters are rake-thin blondes throwing their heads back to pour another grapefruit margarita in. The music – a fastidiously hip mix of Carly Simon, Ice Cube and Depeche Mode covers by Johnny Cash – gets louder and louder and – “what’s that you say!?” – louder. As much as you might want to hate it, it’s quite fabulous. Becker knows his stuff. It’s such a great party, the food is perhaps a moot point.
After working my way through the menu, I’d say that this isn’t really somewhere you want to come for a full-on dinner, it’s somewhere to book and rock up to as late as possible, for a casual mix of nibbles, liquor and nightlife. As Mexican food goes, it’s not half bad. I bastardise the cuisine at home to decent, cosy, sludgy effect, but frankly, London’s Mexican restaurants – most notably Mercado in Stoke Newington – are uniformly crap. Only retro Greek seems like a less appealing option. This is a big step up, but is it really what you want for dinner? With a heavily policed two-hour table turning policy? At these prices? Yes and no. With a bit of maybe.
First, a word on those prices: A small plate of red snapper ceviche at £13.50 and a seabass in alternate green and red seasoning for £26 is spendy. With a few tacos, salads and bits and bobs, you’ll blow £50, or much more, with ease. This is London-small-plate-hazard-red-alert territory. But then, some of it’s very good. From the starter list, BBQ octopus is dark, tender and tasty, and a seared tuna starter near perfect. Grilled corn with cream would be better off the cob and with less herb on it. The steak tacos (£6.50 for two) were much-moreish but the chorizo version was so spiced that I needed an emergency glass of milk. A single tuna tostaditas was light, tasty and creamy, but a side of white beans with chorizo was anaemic and lacked seasoning. A plate of roasted vegetables looked dark, leaden and unappealing, with aggressive chunks of onion. It didn’t taste much better. The main problem at La Bodega Negra is that everything tastes curiously similar, and everyone at my table hankered for at least one thing a little lighter.
Come to La Bodega Negra for lashings of margarita-based cocktails and trays of tacos to soak them up, or have some ceviche and a main (the chicken paillard or slow roasted lamb for two are stand-outs). It’s such a shame about the two-hour turnaround, because this would be a great place to linger, revelling in the candlelit funk and glitz, running up a ridiculous bill on drinks and finger food. It’s such a fun room. But then, hey, at least you can book – and let’s face it, most London restaurateurs choose to insult you one of two ways these days: make you wait in the rain for a table or ask for you chip and PIN while your halfway through your pudding. And if the main restaurant at La Bodega Negra was “no reservations” there’d be a very weird, very long unlikely-looking queue outside of Soho’s most salubrious sex shop.