El Pastor, Borough Market

3 months ago

The Vibe

So laid back it’s horizontal. But if you find yourself on the standing benches in the front room, you’ll be propped up in a vertical pose throughout your meal, lending a strange jauntiness to proceedings. This feel like a quick stop that could, at the mention of mezcal, turn into a full session.

Not for those looking for full on romance but perfect for first daters who are constantly on the search for options that sit somewhere between liquids-only and sit-down stuffy.

Decor-wise, there’s some corrugated iron on the walls, hanging lightbulbs, hard surfaces and what looks like formica on some of the tables in the back. Again, not fancy, but really rather cool. Remember, we’re in a Mexican joint, where alcohol consumption takes equal weight with the food, so every cocktail, from Old Fashioneds to Negronis, are laced with tequila.

And should your date dare to question the food credentials, this joint is the from the formidable restauranteurs behind Barrafina and Quo Vadis, Sam and Eddie Hart. So pipe down Princess and finish your salsa.

The Order

Tortillas are freshly made on site and ‘el pastor’ cooking – meaning ‘shepherd style’ – involves meat being marinated on an upright grill, most notably pork marinated in a mixture of dried chillies, spices, achiote, and orange juice. Served in a soft corn taco. Wet your whistle with some sipping tequila or a damn near perfect Margarita.

Food-wise, start with a truly delightful sesame tuna tostado and some guac, then head straight to taco town, with a ridiculously moreish chorizo, sweet potato and salsa verde, followed by a sweet n’ meaty short rib and pineapple taco. For date chat distraction, the carnitas are a Do-It-Yourself dish, so as playful as you guys wanna make it.

The Game

On a date, the mistake would be to head here early evening for a formal sit down. This is more of a bowl up tipsy at around 8/9pm and prop up the counter tables while satiating your hunger, vibing off the energy of the Borough crowd and getting your meat fix. Meet on a Saturday to wander around the market and then end up in Bedales for some slow wine drinking. One glass becomes four and before you know it your stomach is rumbling and you want something a little more occasional than a quick fix at Brindisa. Stay a maximum of 60 mins to keep up the momentum of the date, then wander into the night to snog on the streets and find a night cap.

The Faults

The bill might surprise you; Wahaca it is not.

Sex Factor

2. A very decent pit stop but not the closer.

Peyote, Mayfair

3 years ago

The Game

Mexican is a tough one to class up. No matter how much piquant this and ceviche that, we’re also talking a hefty dose of tortillas, meat, cheese and guac. At Peyote, just like La Bodega Negra, its the artfully decorated room and the attractive people that fill it, as well as the superb cocktail list, that make it worthwhile. A mid-week date at this Cork Street dining room is ideal for those who work in Mayfair or appreciate its charms, and anyone who is a fan of Roka, Coya (heaven), the Arts Club and Zuma. With venture capitalist Arjun Waney behind all these projects you can perhaps see why the dating clientele tend to be financiers and fashionistas. A typical dining room scene will see 3 or four “early days” dates, the odd wealthy family getting out of the house, and table upon table of chic investment types – a few dapper Frenchmen, a lot of well spoken suits. It should be offensive, but it isn’t. It’s quietly glamorous, rather good looking, and a solid swanky date,  with almost realised ‘hip’ credentials and the softening blow of tequila shots.

The Order

The food is a mixture of fine tuned street food (tacos, quesadillas) and high end fare. I recommend just matching the vibe of the place and sticking with high end. On the ‘yes’ list: yellow tail laminados and prawn ceviche, very good. The sea bass with cilantro and pineapple sauce was very tasty indeed and the steak with a smokey aubergine paste was a winner but extremely filling. The corn and Mexican rice was, perhaps bizarrely, one of the highlights. While the tacos, tostada and quesadillas have a few noteworthy options, I’d skip the bunch – they’re messy to eat on a date and no better than cheaper options I’ve had. The cocktail list is pure heaven, with a Chilli and Passionfruit Margarita and the watermelon and tequila Pink Daze.

The Game

This is how things went for the couple next to us. Early thirties hedge funder from New York waits at the table for his date. He has clearly come straight from the gym and is radiant, with slicked back hair and a tie that has been artfully loosened. He’s exotic looking, perhaps half Indian, and very handsome indeed. His US/Euro twang is soft and elegant; he almost certainly went to business school. Enter his date. A late twenties brunette who is polished to the hilt. Poker straight hair, a black pencil skirt suit, nice bag, high heels. She isn’t posh, but she’s dead classy. Despite looking immaculate, both have a very friendly air about them, a willingness to make this work. They were definitely set up by mutual friends.

She walks in ten minutes late; he’s been waiting with a cocktail that’s a little too pink. She apologises, but the time lag was probably intentional. They exchange how are yous four times before noticing the repetition and cringing. Conversation then moves onto their respective days at work, deals closed, and gym routines. The gentleman orders and voices his gladness that the meeting is happening. After the first drink they switch to mineral water. Not because they’re not having fun, but because they’re disciplined. The chat loosens up, there are a few sparks and play punches, and they end the date just in time to get to bed, separately, by 11. It seemed like a good date but who knows, these chaps leave poker faced.

The Faults

Style over substance. OK for foodies but perfect for daters.

Sex Factor

2. Based on said corporate couple, it’s the elegant long game you’re playing here.

Casa Negra, Shoreditch

3 years ago

The Vibe

March 2012 is when Mexican food in London became really slick. Before that it was Wahaca this, Benito that, but the strains of cheap thrills Americana were still in the air, no matter how fresh or roughly chopped their guac. Then La Bodega Negra opened in Soho, a dark, sexy basement restaurant with ironic hop hop and pricey tacos, and the daters flocked. Its sex shop entrance welcomed A-Listers and models, fashion PR powerplayers and hipsters with bank balances. It was fantastic.

And now, thanks be, its sister restaurant has popped up in Shoreditch. Case Negra, a few minutes from Old Street, is Bodega’s slightly bratty teenage sibling. Unlike its picky sister, Casa will let almost anyone in, providing you book in advance or attempt a walk in with a pinch of charm. It also serves food till very late, so no party pooping here. The decor is jovial – bright reds, greens and candystipes, Frieda Kahlo pics, and a beach shack Sol bar- but there’s still some of the sexiness of Bodega, with flashy chandeliers, black glossy walls, over-the-top waiters greeting you with a ‘fab-you-lous‘ and a very frisky buzz in the air. It’s also likely you’ll fancy more than your date in here.

The Order

The Yank chef, Brad McDonald, formerly headed the Brooklyn kitchens of Gran Electicia, an earnestly trendy Mexican small plate restaurant where the drinks and decor are known to overshadow the food. But what are the critics heckling for anyway? Fundamentally Mexican street food is pretty basic, so an assessment will come down to how lightly battered the fish tacos, how piquant the sauce and whether anything new has been done to faithful meat/carb/cheese combo. Beef tartare tostada, braised pork tacos, and spicy fried chicken are all noteworthy and yummy as hell. Order 3 or 4 plates to pick at but commit yourself to the Casa Margarita with homemade orange sherbet liqueur. Drink four.

The Game

The best thing about this place is that you can reserve a table late, real late. Go for a 11.30pm Friday night sitting, giving you ample time to warm up and prevent awkward table chat. Copy the following sequence for a tried and tested winner:

Meet at 9pm at Happiness Forgets, a dark and hidden basement bar in Hoxton Square. Drink an Old Fashioned or three, get controversial and playful with your chat, and insinuate that, whatever happens in the future, tonight’s going to be wild.

At 11pm pay up and make your way to Casa. You need to be tipsy but not drunk, God forbid you inhale the Mexican food like it’s your late night refuel. Enter the restaurant and banter wildly with the peppy staff. Go to the bar for your first margarita while you wait and heckle them for the best table in the house. Once you’re seated, carry on as you did in the bar, no seriousness allowed. Don’t overthink the menu, just nominate a decision maker and get the drinks in fast. Stay no longer than 90 minutes to keep the momentum. Pay up, splitting it like boozy friends and leave.

Wander down the road to Hoxton Hotel, line up the glasses

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of red and people watch the nutters for a bit. Lunge up against the bar, piss people off and leave. Then continue towards Old Street station and either have a final night cap at Shoreditch Grind or head back to theirs. Pure fun.

The Faults

If you want to join the fun in the Playroom downstairs it can be hard to get through the angry gatekeepers.

Sex Factor

5. Fun, silly, tequila-fuelled.

La Bodega Negra, Soho

4 years ago

The Vibe

La Bodega Negra’s basement restaurant can be found in the heart of Soho, behind a sex shop door, down some stairs, through some beautiful hostesses and past a celebrity crew (think Kate, Alexa and Miquita). It absolutely reeks cool, from the dark, cavernous room with roughly plastered walls, to the ironic playlist of 90s hip hop and cheese pumping, way too loudly, from the concealed speakers. Unlike the open-access café upstairs, a cheaper and less intimidating version, the downstairs restaurant requires strict reservations with exact timings (your slot if 7-9 and not a minute longer) and an expectation that serious money will be spent here, from the cocktails to the sharing tacos to the sparkling water, mains and Patrón shots. Take a date here if you are, or want to be, a well-to-do trendster, if you’re happy to spend a lot and, obviously, if you like Mexican food. Like the infamous La Esquina in New York, which is also hard to find and littered with celebs, La Bodega is likely to be popular for a while, more to do with its style than sustenance. But it’s a stonker of a date, slick, fancy, and of the moment- until La Esquina opens in London.

The Order

The mains, such as the Pork Belly with Mezcal and Salsa Verde, are high end Mexican food done really well. However, don’t order for yourself, order for the table. This is the sort of place where the first focus is your tequila based-cocktail and some sparkling water, then an onslaught of dish listing- some soft shell crab tacos, some pulled pork ones, a couple of ceviches, a main and a salad.  Then pick at them for the next hour as if accompaniments to the drinks. It’s oh so decadent- too much food and an appetite that only yearns for it once two cocktails down. Since it’s nice to take your time, and the place stays open late, I’d suggest the later sitting at 9pm- there’s nothing worse than being wacked with a big bill and then hustled out.

The Game

Despite being charming, there’s something discomfort-inducing about the hostesses and whole entrance and reservation checking process. Therefore, if you made the booking, arrive around 10 minutes early and be seated alone. This way you can shed some layers, get comfortable and wait for your date to be presented to you. The first few minutes will pass quickly with talk of how edgy the place is- make sure you draw the La Esquina parallel in the least twatty way possible. Dive straight into drinking and nominate one of you to do all the ordering, with a token request put in by the passive party, just to show they have gumption. Allow the waitress to persuade you into the next cocktail, and the next. When finished with the food, and by no means wipe the plates clean, order some shots to finish. Move to the bar area, which will almost definitely be packed tight enough for you to press up against each other. Register a spark, give up on the queue and head upstairs to find a nightcap spot (B-Soho?)or head home, together.

The Faults

Mon dieu, c’est cher.

Sex Factor

5. So dark, so glam, so money.

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