Kol, the eagerly anticipated London debut from Noma Mexico’s Santiago Lastra finally opened in Marylebone last week — a British-Mexican tasting menu restaurant almost three years in development. The pandemic, which delayed its opening from May, appears to have not diminished the scope of its ambition, nor deterred Lastra’s business partner-investors MJMK Restaurants from continuing to support and open a 56-cover restaurant in a city centre which can no longer rely on either large numbers of office workers, nor tourists.
But bolstered by 36 months of build-up, bookings, and the “support of the London restaurant community,” Lastra says MJMK have consistently applied a “do whatever it takes” attitude to get the restaurant open. “They treat us like a family,” Lastra says. That spirit is underpinned by money, reputations, and determination, which together have realised a project that appears incongruous to these times.
But class and ambition alone cannot overcome the harsh realities of this unprecedented crisis. And buoyed though he is, Lastra is sanguine about the potential medium and long-term impact on business. “It is a worry and we are doing our best to get through this in the most positive way, try to do the best we can, it is not the perfect scenario,” he admitted. “We are working really hard to be able to craft a good experience and product, keep everyone working with us and at the same time be able to pay the bills with reduced covers, condensed hours [...] we are working as a family together to be able to work around it without compromising quality in any way.”
Compromise they won’t; convention, well, that can be torn up. While staples such as corn — for fresh tortillas, chocolate, and chillies are imported from Mexico (to support native producers), elsewhere a highly conceptual menu privileges British, often wild, ingredients, where the likes of lime is replaced by fermented gooseberry; avocado leaf, which applies a sweet note to cooked beans, by the wild plant woodruff; and cactus subbed out for seaweed. Lastra has deliberately elected to exclude avocado from his menu — an ingredient which he believes has become synonymous with Mexican cuisine globally, but which he says is of lesser significance in Mexico itself.
The seasonal British climate — which delivers a diverse, changing range of produce throughout the year, was among the reasons Lastra decided to move to London, having completed his role as project manager of Rene Redzepi and Rosio Sanchez’s big-ticket Noma Mexico in 2017. He also wanted to be somewhere receptive to Mexican flavours, heat, and spice; a location that was on the map for gastro-tourists, too. “Central and accessible,” Lastra says. He wanted to be in a “multicultural” city and that over the years, at events he’d run in 27 different countries, he’d always found British guests to be his favourite.
But, he did not want to be somewhere that was “related to traditional Mexican food nor its ingredients.” “I like to dream,” he says. “How can we conceptualise?”
While Lastra concedes that realising Kol, and navigating a high-profile London restaurant opening through a pandemic, was “the most difficult of all the dreams I’ve had,” he explains that his concept eventually became quite simple, that ultimately it comes down to two things: quality and respect.
These are the core values, against which Kol will measure itself: be that in its treatment of staff, guests, Mexican traditions, or British ingredients. Far from restricting itself to ideas of luxury, or being “too cerebral,” and confined to the realm of fine dining, Lastra says he is more interested in what he believes to be “real” — where research into Mexican indigenous cooking is practically applied to dishes that could only really be possible in his current time and place, in London, in 2020.
Lastra credits Redzepi and the Noma tradition with introducing him to this philosophy. “Noma México and my work in Noma and Rene overall I got to understand how quality and respect are pillars on what we do,” Lastra says. “The real meaning of quality is not something luxurious that most of the times ends up being unsustainable; quality is about respect, to our producers and growers, culture, the environment, team, and guests.”
He adds that quality is also about “traceability” and that Noma’s idea of time and place “make scenes for” Kol. “This country has a beautiful amazing diversity and quality of ingredients so we use what is fresh and then our biggest rule is that it has to taste Mexican.” This is where Kol is different from other Mexican restaurants in London, a scene which remains perennially in the green shoots phase of evolution.
Lastra says it’s a process. “If we compare with Russia, Taiwan, or China — if we don’t count the U.S. — London makes an effort. It’s good enough,” he says. Without naming names, and without deliberately trying to condescend his forebears — “it’s not about being better than anyone, it’s about being part of and building a community” — Lastra added that there were chefs and restaurants “trying with their heart and doing a good job,” those who “believe in making a sauce for three days — I appreciate that. And I appreciate these restaurants are going to get better.
“But it’s really difficult to make authentic Mexican food outside of Mexico, which is why we don’t do it.”
To better understand what they are doing and in what environment Lastra is going to realise his dream, Eater went behind the scenes with the team at Kol on the day it opened in London.
The restaurant interior
The pots around the restaurant have been sourced and shipped directly from Mexico, bought from a couple of architects, who Lastra says travel around Mexico looking for forgotten old pots that get left out in backyards or big houses and get aged with the time. Featuring them in the restaurant “gives them a second life and an opportunity to showcase that marks of age are a feature of design and beauty.”
Downstairs, in the mezcaleria, the walls are decorated with masks, in the folk traditions of Alebrijes, and which in Mexico are used during festivities, such as during the the danza de los abuelos.
Santiago Lastra’s expression of British-Mexican cuisine, in two dishes.
First, a “ceviche” of kohlrabi, pink mole, pumpkin aguachile, and smoked beetroot
The pink mole contains pine nuts, beetroot, and smoked chiles. Elsewhere, the dish includes smoked beetroot, purple dew plant, and chochoyotes (small fried corn masa dumplings.)
Among the snacks, a pistachio mole, which is Lastra’s replacement for guacamole. It comprises a pistachio praline with pine oil, cucumber juice and pickled onions with fermented gooseberries and charred habanero, served with crudités and herbs that are sprayed with three-month house-aged kombucha.