Hungarian flourishes pay homage to this Soho restaurant’s legendary predecessor
If you can remember the 1960s, goes the old adage, then you probably weren’t there. I feel the same way about The Gay Hussar. Because despite hard evidence of my visiting this legendary Soho stalwart (old diaries, tattered receipts), I’m never entirely sure.
Sure, there are fuzzy, fragmented flashbacks to Hungarian goulash soup. And a pretty decent roast duck. I think. But this was a restaurant where the food took a back seat to the real sustenance, namely crimson torrents of Bull’s Blood, that great Hungarian red. And lashings of gossip, intrigue and backstabbing, all lustily imbibed by a merry gang of old socialists, New Labour, damp Tories and hardened hacks.
It closed two years back, and donkey jackets were rent in grief. But then some good news. The site was bought by the owners of Noble Rot, that magnificent modern wine bar in Bloomsbury. Equally exciting, they were bringing in Alex Jackson, formerly of the late and much lamented Sardine, as head chef.
Downstairs at Noble Rot Soho the white linen and political caricatures are gone, replaced by vinous prints, bare tables and discreetly cushioned pews. Walls are painted in a deep, clubby green and rows of glass decanters stand guard on a high shelf, like gleaming grenadiers. But the spirit of The Gay Hussar very much lingers on. Something the punters are also encouraged to do.
We’ve managed to persuade our editor out to lunch, and so are on best behaviour. To start with, at least. My friend Olly Smith (see below) chooses astonishingly fine wines from Tenerife and Burgundy while we chew on Jésus Basque saucisson, sweet, silken slices of jambon noir and pert sardines in vinsanto. The menu also pays Hussar homage, without being dominated by him. A dribble of Tokaji jelly on the choux buns, filled with gloriously rich duck liver parfait. Or an astonishingly soft and subtle game-stuffed cabbage, lolling in mellow, mushroom-infused broth.
Goulash is suitably meaty, and heavy on the paprika, but not overwhelmingly so. Chocolate mousse veers towards the ecstatic. Because Jackson has an admirable lightness of touch, an innate culinary intelligence that, when combined with glowingly warm service and the most civilised of rooms, makes the new Noble Rot both enticing and enchanting. This is one lunch that would be a sin to forget.
Drinks: Olly’s award-winning wines
How much do you trust those shiny little circular stickers on wine bottles? These medal-winning wines are judged by teams of experts without revealing the label. My tip: whatever the competition, if the wine wins a trophy, gold or silver medal, take note. Worry less about chasing bronze or commended. And for a daily dose of good wine under ten quid, check out the Value Vino wine awards on my website, ollysmith.com.
Tesco Finest Pedro Ximenez (15%), £6 (37.5cl). Sweet dark sticky treasure, try pouring it over vanilla ice cream! (Gold, International Wine Challenge 2019)
Gaillac Perlee ‘Evocation’ 2019 (12%), £8.99, Majestic. A Value Vino award winner and fresher than surfing through the ozone layer.
Irresistible Monte-pulciano d’Abruzzo 2018 (13%), £7, Co-Op. Perfect with tomato pasta. Won Gold at the International Wine & Spirits Competition.
Black Chalk Classic 2016 (12%), £35, blackchalk wine.co.uk. Among the best fizz in Britain, pristine and soaring with splendour. (Wine GB Trophy).
Wine of the week: Sorso Nero D’Avola 2018 (13%), £6.75, Morrisons. Black cherry brilliance and a silver medal winner at the Decanter Awards.