Acclaimed Bloomsbury restaurant and wine bar Noble Rot will open its hotly anticipated Soho sequel with one of the city’s most quietly excellent chefs at the helm. Alex Jackson, most recently head chef of the also quietly excellent Sardine, off City Road, will oversee a menu designed to refract the history of former occupier the Gay Hussar through the French country cooking for which he is best known.
Jackson calls the restaurant a proper “old dame of Soho,” and intends to work in a couple of dishes from former Gay Hussar menus — “little flourishes” which represent Hungarian parallels with the country cooking of France. Eggs casino, spiced with anchovy, capers, and nutmeg; cabbage stuffed with pork and sour cream, which, for Jackson, finds French analogue with chou farci and crème fraîche. While he is sanguine about these parallels, he is watchful with his plans for a daily goulash: “The Goulash Appreciation Society [Gay Hussar regulars better known as The Goulash Collective] actually got in touch with Dan and Mark (Keeling and Andrew, founders of Noble Rot) when they took over the site and just said: ‘let’s talk.’”
“The idea is to acknowledge that it is a restaurant site with a lot of history, and I’m really happy with that: there are parallels between the Hungarian and French country traditions that are exciting to work within; Hungary has its own culinary identity, particularly around hunting and game, so it’s exciting to open as summer runs into autumn.”
Taking over a venue rich with political history and intrigue brings with it responsibilities at the stove as much as in the dining room, but Jackson is also working in the context of another, more contemporary London dining institution: the original Noble Rot in Bloomsbury. Overseen since November 2015 by head chef Paul Weaver, who departed earlier this year, and Stephen Harris of the famed Sportsman pub in Kent, its early romantic confidence has sustained its transition into a critical darling — to the extent that The Sunday Times’ critic Marina O’Loughlin is a minority shareholder and its early, electric buzz has settled into a permanent hum. Its “Franglais” sensibility, perhaps more boisterous than Jackson’s cooking at Sardine, would make a formidable forerunner for any chef, but Jackson says Keeling and Andrew want the new restaurant to feel both part of the family and able to stand on its own two feet.
Jackson says the majority of the menu will orbit the shared tenets of southern French and northern Italian cookery, leaning towards the former in warmer months and the earthy, autumnal grounding of Piedmontese cookery as the weather gets colder. While the last four years at Sardine have seen him more strictly abide by Provençal tradition, Jackson says that the influences of both the region and his favourite exponents of its traditions — Richard Olney, in chief — will be more like a gentle bass line than an overbearing conductor. He’s excited about a prodigious selection of puddings, including an armagnac baba to be drenched at the table and a stone fruit and brown butter tart excavated from the ruins of Sardine, and a classic Jura dish of roast chicken with morels, vin Jaune, and cream: “a bit of a blow-out.”
Jackson will also follow the Bloomsbury original with a separate bar menu of “punchy” snacks — the eggs casino; French charcuterie; the trio of breads from The Sportsman adopted as a Noble Rot stand-out; and a duck liver pâté doughnut with a Tokaji jelly which very directly appeals to the Franco-Hungarian sensibility Jackson, Keeling and Andrew are trying to cultivate. That comes through too in its being a wine-focussed restaurant, much like its Bloomsbury sibling; the food is very much an analogue to its thick wine list which, while dallying playfully with the capital’s fondness for Natty Juice, is anchored in contemporary exponents of grand winemaking traditions, regions, and villages. Jackson goes as far to say that the food “is in deference to the wine, in a way, and that’s something I’m very happy with.”
His time between closing Sardine and taking the Soho role was filled with family time and leaky greenhouses; a pop-up at Glasshouse on the South Downs saw long-time collaborator Tom Dixon welding tables to order, while the old, handsome greenhouses only revealed themselves to be leaky when it poured down with rain mid-service straight on to diners’ heads. He says it’s been strange to be both busy with the new and sad for the old, with Sardine’s closure a sudden ending for a restaurant which, over four years, had forged itself a reputation for transportive dining behind a McDonald’s just off the blare of City Road. Noble Rot Soho intends to be transportive in terms of time more so than place; two paintings from political cartoonist Martin Rowson will document both government — with Michael Foot and Barbara Castle — and food’s intersection with music — with Nigella Lawson, Angela Hartnett, and Amy Winehouse. That second painting also features Rod Liddle in drag, for reasons best known to Rowson.
Now back in the capital, Jackson says it that “still feels like Soho” around the restaurant, despite well-documented fears for central London’s foot traffic and restaurant trade alike. Opening such a restaurant — the kind that thrives in candlelight and dark corners — as coronavirus cases rise steeply in the U.K. and the government commits to fining restaurants for unspecified breaches of “Covid-secure” measures, is far from the opening any restaurateur would want and far from the opening Keeling and Andrew planned in the summer. But the delay has bought them an exciting, confident cook, with the opportunity to respond to the loss of his own cherished restaurant in a new place. The first months will likely throw up more unexpected surprises, but it feels that Jackson is ready to take the helm and put a new stamp on an old Soho legend.