31 August 2012

n.d.p. in london: duck soup, soho

I seem to have had an atypical experience of Dean Street restaurant Duck Soup last winter. At that time it was a relatively new restaurant, and various friends and reviews had all warned of a tortuous reservation policies and interminable waits. But evidently it was close enough to Christmas for the town to have begun to hunker down, for my friend / colleague M sorted us out a last minute six-top with what seemed like no hassle whatsoever.

There followed a very, very dimly lit meal of small plates in what are usually termed Brooklyn-inspired surroundings - a strange but welcome experience in ultracommercial Soho. At Duck Soup the nightly menu is almost illegibly scrawled on scraps of paper. One is invited to bring records and put them on, perhaps as a distraction while waiting for a bar stool.

The brisk pace of menu change at the Duck Soup means that it will serve no one if I recount each dish, were I even able to this long after the meal. Some were tasty, one or two were mushy catastrophes. More interesting for me consider right now, as I belatedly clear this London material off the iPhone, is what it means to call something "Brooklyn-inspired," and whether this style of restaurateurism exports well.

I've never lived in Brooklyn, nor do I have extensive experience in its dining scene. (I'm from Philadelphia, i.e. Antarctica.) This puts me in a position similar to the readership of any of the number of British newspapers that unhesitatingly describe restuarants like Duck Soup or its cousin Spuntino with the B-word. Like these readers, I must assume that this style of restaurateurism constists of:

1. Poor or lackadaisical or nonexistent reservation policies
2. Small, changeable plates heavy on joy-buzzer ingredients like pork belly
3. Natural wines, craft beers
4. Low-lighting, distressed surfaces, mismatched things
5. Tattoos

Actually, looking at this list, I don't see what's not to love, except #1, which maniacal disinnovation, I'm afraid, panders very successfully to Britain's perversely stoical attitude to dining. British diners seem actively to seek some sort of hassle or scolding in order to counterbalance the undue pleasure they might otherwise have gleaned from food or wine. I see no other explanation for the irrepressible popularity of such bile-faced ragers as Gordon Ramsey or A.A. Gill. Or take, for example, the audible relish with which the following press copy educates its clients (from the website of Meat Liquor, a self-consciously Brooklynite London burger joint): "If there is a queue when you arrive, please join the back of it."

The only rational reason a restaurant would, without prompting, take this sort of gym teacher-ish tone with clients, would be if clients secretly liked it. That is a problem for the nation's pyschologists. Duck Soup, thankfully, indulges in no such sadistic posturing.

There's some posturing, to be sure. I like handwriting on blackboards and mirrors; on menus handed to each table it is an insane affectation. Printers are simpler.

And the bring-your-own-vinyl idea seems not only gimmicky, but sort of passé. Personally, I'm too young to remember vinyl's first wave, but old enough to have already become bored by its second. I own lots of records. I would never dream of taking them to dinner like some Nick Hornby protagonist. I'm sure this system must also present practical problems: how do they enforce quality? What if the only fellow who ambled in with vinyl in hand one night were the rap-rock enthusiast? How do they tell him to cut it out after track one of side A of Hybrid Theory?

These superficial gripes aside, Duck Soup does the Brooklyn impression quite well. I await the day when active pushing of orange wines with dinner goes the way of vinyl's second wave. But it's still wonderful to encounter a natural wine list in central London evenly weighted between Italian originals like Stefano Belotti and French cause-célèbres like Olivier Cousin. Service on the night we went was thankfully unpunitive, even quite good. No one knew the wines they were serving, granted. But, much more importantly, when our table lingered past the hour of their next reservation, the staff at Duck Soup did the right thing and offered us space at the bar downstairs.

If, at the end of the day, I still call it what Duck Soup does an impression, it's because - as I understand it - the aforementioned typical qualities of Brooklyn restaurants did not arise in a vacuum. The restaurants often credited with defining the prevailing style - Diner / Marlow & Sons, later Roberta's, among numerous others - did so by founding an alternative to the incredibly well-established and sophisticated Manhattan dining scene. Where the latter elevated hospitality, or regard for the client, to magnificent heights, the former found its equally valid identity in self-regard - by exploiting the overlooked commercial potential of the tastes and inclinations of restaurant professionals in New York. Separated by a river, and historically defined by informality, Brooklyn proved a receptive audience to, and reliable publicist for, this novel dining concept.

It's a dynamic that could explain how the borrough's retaurants inititially became famous for limited hospitality, crowd-pleaser ingredients, low lighting, a lack of formality, unfinished decor, even the tattoos. (Natural wine, if not craft beer, probably came moments later. Wine geeks seem to follow talented chefs like remoras do sharks.) These features are what many piratic restaurant folk default to for lack of investors.

A decade into this trend, I reckon many parts of Brooklyn are now incapable of birthing a new "Brooklyn" restaurant, because the style was an innovation born of some degree of necessity (limited knowledge of FOH hospitality, limited funds, etc.). Duck Soup chef Julian Biggs and co-owners Clare Lattin and Rory McCoy are all veterans of the enormously successful Hix restaurant group, and their restaurant is located in Soho, less the Brooklyn of London than its mid-town. So what they have created seems like a very enjoyable put-on, a place where both they and their clientele can pretend to be hungry again.

Duck Soup
41 Dean Street
Tel: +44 020 7287 4599

Related Links:

Good pics and dull writing about Duck Soup @ ASpoonfulOfSugar
Same @ TheLondoner
Same @ TheSkinnyBib
An agreeably frank review of Duck Soup @ Telegraph
An early notice about Duck Soup by Fiona Beckett @ WineMadeNaturally
A review of Duck Soup @ TimeOut

Reading through London foodie blogs makes me wonder whether I've been too hard on the quality of Anglophone blogging in Paris. Apparently lacking satisfactory vocab to describe impressions of what they're ingesting or where, these people resort continually to See-Jack-Run declarations like, 'I wanted more,' 'I want to come back often,' or 'The place was so cool.' The level of discourse is astonishing.

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