Arkady Novikov: there’s an interesting chap. He once got turned down for a job in the first McDonald’s in Moscow. He worked in the Hard Rock Cafe before becoming an eye-wateringly rich oligarch. He is known as the Russian Tom Ford (because he dresses a bit like him, which I guess makes me the English Zach Braff). He owns more than 50 restaurants, from traditional Russian places to Michelin-starred fine-dining joints. He is the equivalent of Alan Sugar on the Russian The Apprentice. He once ate a live frog after losing a bet with Philip Schofield (I made that one up).
Last year he opened his first restaurant in London, the inventively named Novikov. It was an expansive, expensive venture that everyone thought would be received in the way the British version of Balthazar actually has been received: with a combination of schadenfreude and snobbish contempt. After all, this is a nouveau riche cook-turned-businessman – and a Russian to boot! – and nobody likes a success story. It caused fury in the foodie world because it was actually pretty good. How dare he?
Now, with the opening of Brompton Asian Brasserie, everyone gets a second chance to hope it all goes tits up. Despite serving similar cuisine to Novikov (pan-Asian: the clue’s in the name), this is a very different proposition. It doesn’t have pretensions to be anything more than a mid-market brasserie (again, the clue’s in the name). There are no extravagant design flourishes: it has a disappointingly neutral Asian theme – a bamboo shoot here, a bit of Japanese-style wood panelling there – without much to dislike.
I went on a Thursday night and it was packed with a crowd so typically South Kensington it lapsed into self parody and emerged, bedraggled, from the other end. A girl in ostentatious Chanel sunglasses (indoors, at 8pm) barked terrifyingly into her phone and communicated with the staff only through a series of derogatory hand gestures. A nauseatingly handsome couple dressed like extras in an Aubin & Wills advertising campaign stared wistfully into their iPhones for the duration of their meal. That’s what you get for opening a restaurant in South Ken: a Harrods overspill, full of the spoiled progeny of minor foreign dignitaries, urbanite cousins of the landed gentry and the odd tourist.
The restaurant manager is an enthusiastic type who introduced himself as Manager Lee; a man with a grin as fixed as the Joker’s. He is so happy it makes you nervous – what does he know that we don’t? He’s not afraid of making recommendations: “You want the beef? I think you would prefer the chicken…”
The menu is split into sections: small dishes, grill, wok, tempura, sushi and so on. The scallops and suckling pork with hot and sour sauce arrived first. The pork, served under a big, wispy bush of watercress, was nice and fatty but I couldn’t for the life of me work out what they had done with the scallops. I eventually shifted the foliage around (does anyone eat that much cress? I’m going to go out on a limb and say “no”. I mean, maybe over a lifetime, but not in a single sitting) and discovered a couple of pieces lurking beneath. They looked at me like teenagers who had been caught smoking behind the bike shed. I responded by eating them: I won’t countenance that kind of attitude from a scallop. Their taste was overpowered by the hot sauce.
The tuna tartare, though, was delicious – a light, zippy hunk of squashed fish sitting in a salty reservoir of miso. The asparagus dim sum looked a bit like something from a science fiction B-movie: three squat green balls that could conceivably have harboured alien life. They were nice enough in a way that makes you think: “Well, that was healthy,” while secretly wishing you’d ordered something smeared in butter and salt.
The baby spicy chicken – which Manager Lee had insisted on – was sweet and sticky, caramelised to within an inch of its life. I thought it was so-so but my guest raved. She’s a sucker for baby chicken.
The tiger prawn in shishito pepper was the head-turner of the evening – a big fat crustacean shelled, chopped, laid on a slate and reunited with its severed head and tail. It is the kind of presentation that inter-planetary visitors would examine and think: humans, seriously, what’s with you guys? It tasted great but at £12, though, you don’t get a great deal of prawn for your pounds.
At £150 (including a bottle of wine, mineral waters and coffee), it isn’t cheap – but for South Kensington, neither is it wildly unreasonable.
I hate to break it to you: I liked it. It didn’t blow my mind but it’s a decent little place. The food is more than fine without ever threatening to be excellent. The clientele is a bit gauche but that’s South Kensington for you. I’d go back. I know, I know, I’m sorry.
First published in City A.M.