The spice trail, if your GCSE history is a little cloudy, is the network of shipping routes linking Japan to Europe, via China, Indonesia, India and the Middle East. It formed the primitive tentacles of globalisation that began to inch around the planet from around 2000BC, giving man the first opportunity to screw over his neighbour.
This trade in exotic materials was vital to just about every craft you can think of. Without it, we wouldn’t have the shade of blue used to paint the Virgin Mary, because the ultramarine pigment comes from lapis lazuli mined in Afghanistan. It was vital in the development of medicine (turmeric, for instance, contains curcumin, a phytochemical agent used as an anti-inflammatory). It allowed our ancestors to upgrade from sack-cloth overalls to silk cravats. And best of all, it stopped our food from tasting rubbish. In the days when the best you could hope was that your mutton wasn’t too rotten, a bit of pepper was as highly prized as a hand-job from the gods.
The spice trail, with its impossibly varied cargos, is the inspiration behind new restaurant Foley’s in Fitzrovia. Except that wasn’t quite a big enough catchment area, so they threw in the Americas, too, because why not. It’s the sort of premise that fills me with dread, a recipe for an ill-defined, jack-of-all-trades menu that almost inevitably fails to be all things to all men.
But head chef Mitz Vora – whose name appears on all the literature, lest you forget whose food you’re eating – creates something relatively coherent, often surprising and sometimes rather wonderful. While the flavours and ingredients are bafflingly disparate – the Indian subcontinent is probably the biggest influence – a street food ethos runs throughout, and it somehow tastes like it all comes out of the same kitchen. Every plate is filled with primary colours, looking about as subtle as the Damien Hirst dot paintings that hang in the upstairs dining room.
The restaurant started life earlier this year as Foley’s Tasting Kitchen in the “test-space” under the railway arches off Goldhawk Road. The rehearsal has paid off: the new site has been open less than three weeks but the service is already sharp – a little over-friendly for my liking, but I’m a miserable bastard – and the pacing is spot on (having said that, if you can’t get the pacing right with tapas-style dishes, you may as well give up).
Vora used to be sous chef at Soho’s Palomar, and you can see the influence. Like Palomar, the music is loud – upbeat, jazzy, not obnoxious – and the stools at the bar overlooking the bijou kitchen are considered the best in the house. In fact, when Vora overheard me debating a move to a table in a dark corner, he looked at me like I’d requested ketchup.
“Don’t try to escape,” he said. He was smiling, but I don’t think he wasn’t joking.
So instead of looking at each other, my guest and I watched a man beating pomegranates with a ladle and a lady peeling aubergines. Half-way through the meal, Vora poured shots for everyone, including the chefs, which is another carry-over from Palomar.
The menu is mercifully small, divided into snacks, meat, veg and fish. I’ll start with the best: grilled octopus with pork mince, black sesame mayo and sriracha. Of everything on the menu, this best sums up what Foley’s is trying to do, taking a dish that’s ostensibly from a specific place but making it in a style that’s entirely its own. It’s Vora’s take on Korean food, and it owes far more allegiance to Vora than it does Korea. It’s also fantastically well-cooked, with tender meat and a gentle kick in the throat from the chilli. Sweet potato fritters in a puddle of tangy saffron curry and spiced cauliflower with tzatziki are both spot on. Cornflake-encrusted popcorn chicken with shimeji mushrooms, chorizo and a rich corn puree sounds mad but is actually nicely put together, if a little too sweet.
At the other end of the spectrum, ceviche “tacos” – neither Peru nor Mexico are on the spice trail – consisting of tuna and octopus served in an endive leaf is uninspiring and a bit silly. Using ox-cheek in the sticky beef is also a mistake: it needs a more substantial cut to avoid crumbling into a spicy meat-paste.
There’s a dessert called a Fatboy Elvis consisting of banana cake, bacon and strawberry jam, but I wasn’t up to it. The panna cotta with frozen lychees, however, is just about nice enough to overcome the fact it’s served in a half coconut rolling around on a bed of salt crystals. The baklava cheesecake disappeared without complaint.
One thing you can’t accuse Vora of is being dull. His food is loud and punchy and unpretentious. You can’t cast your net as wide as he does and claim to be the best at any particular cuisine, but what he lacks in focus, he makes up for in passion. Plus he gets you pissed, and that goes a long way.
First published in City A.M.