Tom finds both fine sustenance and sanctuary in a Soho restaurant that hits the right notes.
God, Rita’s is fun. Having spent the previous hour at the Royal Academy, in the presence of Francis Bacon’s brutal beauty, we were craving something, well… a little less bleak. And this small Soho restaurant is like a jolt of pure joy, from the sunniest staff who radiate good cheer to a soothing soundtrack of old classics, and the ever-present rattle of ice on shaker.
Then there’s the menu, joyous without being frivolous, mainly American, but featuring the occasional foray across the border into Mexico, and the odd leap across the pond too. It’s a clever, knowing mixture of high and low, so buffalo wings next to beef tartare, fried chicken parmigiana alongside gambero rosso and trout in Creole sauce.
We perch at our table and drink brisk margaritas, nibbling gildas – those salty, savoury Basque pintxos impaled on a cocktail stick, where olive meets anchovy and chilli (in this case, a slice of jalapeño rather than the usual pickled version). They’re big on provenance here, so the chicken wings are cut from a superior bird, the sauce getting the right balance between sharp and hot, the whole plate covered with a flurry of crumbled blue cheese.
Devilled eggs, a dish that pops up in many a place around town, are made with spicy Chinese bean paste, giving the creamy cocktail-party classic an interesting edge. Barbecue beef tartare comes smothered beneath an entire allotment of herbs, and is spiked with raw vegetables, so the soothing chew of the excellent, subtly smoky beef contains the odd welcome crunch.
Taquitos, crisp fried tortilla cigars, are stuffed with the most mellow of salt fish, dressed with chopped lettuce, sour cream and what tastes like their take on a salsa macha, all dried chillies, scarlet oil and various roasted seeds. Close your eyes, and you could be in a Veracruz market. Birria too, one of my favourite Mexican dishes, a fat slice of slow-cooked lamb, swimming in an intense, spicy broth. Wrap in fresh taco, dip in the consommé, stuff in gob.
Finally, chicken parmigiana, a red sauce Italian classic, where brittle-coated, spectacularly juicy flesh is draped in melted mozzarella and surrounded by the sort of tomato sauce to make a goodfella grin. Outside, the rain tips down. But in Rita’s, it’s all about warmth, restoration and a happy refuge from the deluge.
About £35-70 per head. Rita’s, 49 Lexington Street, London W1; ritasdining.com.
DRINKS: Olly’s low-alcohol beers
The first time I tasted Lucky Saint lager I was smitten. Unfiltered, with a game-changing deliciousness, it’s just 0.5% alcohol but I barely noticed. And at only 53 calories a bottle it proves that great beers don’t have to be boozy to be brilliant. What blows me away is how they cleverly bridge all styles from light to dark, with the low booze factor a welcome bonus. If you’re in the mood for moderation, your luck is in.
ERDINGER ALKOHOLFREI WHEAT BEER (0.5%), £1.30, Sainsbury’s. If it’s elegant refreshment you’re after, this is as easy and fresh as it gets. Great with Thai food.
BIG DROP GALACTIC MILK STOUT (0.5%), £1.55, Waitrose. Dark, velvety deliciousness. I never miss the booze when I sip this scrumptious stout.
SMALL BEER ORGANIC IPA (2.3%), £2.30, Ocado. Hoppy and heavenly, this organic gem delivers big joy in small doses.
LUCKY SAINT LAGER (0.5%), £1.80, Tesco. I stock up on this regularly and it’s a staple for its unfiltered fabulousness. Smashing lager.