Nostalgia is a perilous thing, leading to all sorts of gubbins being recreated. Still, it’s one of the most seductive emotions, which is why, when restaurateurs Noble Rot took on the former site of The Gay Hussar – founded in 1953 – on Greek Street in Soho, they promised to preserve some of this infamous Hungarian restaurant and former political lunching haunt’s former glory. It’s also why my first thought was: “Lord God, why?”
The Noble Rot gang, if you’ve ever had the sublime pleasure to visit their original Bloomsbury restaurant, are people who do things correctly, offering inventive, modern European food, a clever, considered wine list and soothing, diligent service – plus a dining room bubbling with the scarlet-nosed food scene cognoscenti. The Gay Hussar, on the other hand, when I last visited in 2013, was barbaric on many levels, from the chilled cherry soup that tasted like Nesquik mixed with Lidl Bull’s Blood and the sludgy bean cholent stew served in a potato-lattice fortress to the sticky carpets, dusty bookshelves, laminated menus, whiff of the fryer and the staff who used to stand in the kitchen peering at you through the chef’s pass like the cast of Meerkat Manor. The best thing Noble Rot could have done for this spot, if they’d asked me, was to fill it with dynamite and stand well back.
Thankfully, they did not ask me. Instead, they have lovingly rejigged this old dear into something really quite lovely, and in the process invoked a gorgeous memory of something that didn’t actually exist. Noble Rot II – the sequel – is an elegant, softly lit, old-school dining establishment, all slick brown leather banquettes, flattering bordello lamps and cut-glass decanters, with two inviting dining rooms, a creaky, dark staircase and political cartoonson the wall, in a nod towards its past, along with goulash on the menu. More importantly, however, they’ve also installed the talented Alex Jackson, formerly of Sardine, at the stove.
When I say that the new Noble Rot is heavenly, it is not poetic frippery; this is more or less what the big dining room in the sky is for me: an informal yet ostensibly formal, louche lunching spot with posh roast chicken and chocolate mousse. Though, of course, I am underselling both of these things: the whole chicken is for two and is served with a rich, memorable morel and vin jaune sauce and a tureen of soft, fragrant pilaf rice, while the firm yet wobblesome chocolate mousse comes with a brandy prune and a warm hazelnut biscuit.
It’s a joy to see Jackson flourishing in this new setting. He takes eggs casino – humble boiled eggs stuffed with an anchovy, butter and cream gloop – and elevates them from Abigail’s Party fodder to something quite wonderful. The Hungarian-style cabbage leaves stuffed with stewed game, meanwhile, would certainly win no beauty competitions, but are rustic and moreish and all the better for it. The vegetarian option was buttery girolles with grilled polenta, creme fraiche and parmesan.
This is not a menu for dieters hoping to shift that 10 or so pounds of lockdown “upholstery”; it is more a place to embrace the new you and gain extra cladding for the long winter ahead, with choux buns (let’s just call them profiteroles) stuffed with rich, duck liver paté and decorated with Tokaji jelly, or bowls of clams in a sweet riesling sauce, with a side of freshly baked, buttered bread for mopping. Their baba is sodden with armagnac and served with whipped cream, and the cheese plate featuring Langres, St Nectaire and Selles Sur Couffy is available with its own sticky wine flight of Alsatian and German sweet things.
Wines run from quaffable, dependable, pocket-friendly stuff such as the house vinho verde, Chin Chin, at £3 per glass, to labels such as Emidio Pepe, Cecile Tremblay and Lynch-Bages that geeks genuflect towards.
Since my lunch, I’ve told several people to stick this place up their sleeve for a time when they’re not scared of London, or of dining out, or of people. Noble Rot Soho is a birthday or special-occasion place, true, but it is also a place for any given Tuesday when you wish to remember that life is worth living. It isn’t harking back to 1953; rather, it is reminding us that there are still reasons to leave the house in the winter of 2020. If anyone can keep the old place ticking over for another 67 years, it’s this gang.
Noble Rot Soho, 2 Greek Street, London W1, 020-7183 8190. Open Mon-Sat noon-2.30pm (3pm Fri & Sat), dinner 5pm-8pm. About £45 a head, plus drinks and service. Set lunch menu: two courses £18, three courses £22.