Noble Rot sits in Greek Street, Soho, on the site of the old Gay Hussar, which squatted here from 1953 like a rebuke. Some people loved this Hungarian ‘left-wing’ restaurant, with its terrible food, its library of Labour-themed political biographies, its raging cartoons and fond memories of Harold Wilson. But you can’t eat political biographies — not if you have taste. An attempt to save it by a ‘Goulash Collective’ failed, because the Gay Hussar was a themed restaurant whose theme — a sort of politicised London Dungeon — ran out. In an exquisite metaphor, it closed in 2018, at the height of Jeremy Corbyn’s self-hating — and self-thwarted — grasp for power.
Now, instead, we have Noble Rot, the second of that name; the first is in Lamb’s Conduit Street, Bloomsbury. I love this name because it is ambivalent: noble rot is a fungal infection that afflicts grapes. If managed carefully, it produces wines of great sweetness and depth. If left to itself, it is destructive, and that is a fair metaphor for adventures in Soho still.
The owners are mindful that this restaurant is near Hazlitt’s, the hotel for adulterers who re-enact the Enlightenment in soft furnishings, and other black-hearted Soho relics, and have created a restaurant that feels ancient, and therefore interesting, but with food you might actually eat. That is not something you could say about the Gay Hussar, which used to serve haunting roast duck and fat red chillies in what looked like ash trays: nibbles for masochists. The postbox-red frontage is gone — it is now an oily green — but there are no picture windows or pale woods after renovation; that is, it does not look like a Carbis Bay fungalow, or a branch of John Lewis after a robbery, as is the current fashion. On the ground floor there are dark floorboards, dark banquettes, curious lamps and a display of glassware, which together resemble a muted carriage on the Orient Express: a crime scene waiting for a crime.
On the first floor there is a Martin Rowson triptych of Soho not as it is — it is swiftly gentrifying, swollen not with decadence but with flats belonging to people too careful to need Soho, but who want it anyway — but as it should be: ill-lit, despairing and compulsive, a site of murder, pandemic and many drugs. The view in the picture is north to Soho Square; the Gay Hussar is there still, twinkling more merrily than it did in life. It looks happier squashed into a frame, and it is safer for us too: paintings don’t serve haunted ducks. There are even people outside it, clamouring to enter this small Gay Hussar, because that is the redemptive power of art. The Goulash Collective will be pleased, if they haven’t splintered into a clutch of collectives or more.
The menu is short and superb, gathered from Europe because Soho is still, just, hanging on by its fingers to polyglot: lamb sweetbreads with bacon and broad beans on toast; green asparagus and sauce mimosa; Yorkshire lamb leg with courgette gratin and black olives; roast chicken, fresh morels and vin jaune with riz au pilaf; roast John Dory with fine beans, rosemary and lardo. It is intense, beautiful food, and very good: my companion has the sweetbreads, which melt into toast and deserve fame before they are consumed; my lamb is sweet, blackened and desirable. Pudding is chocolate mousse with brandy prune and hazelnut biscuit; and strawberries in Beaujolais.
Noble Rot is a parody, of course, but a careful one, and there is nothing left but parody. It knows what Soho is, and should be, and can only be in myth.
Noble Rot, 2 Greek Street, London, W1D 4NB, tel: 0207 183 8190.