Central London has a baffling amount of places to ingest food, most of which are good, none of which are cheap, the majority of which appear these days to be in Kingly Court at the expense of, variously, the Soho Book Exchange and any kind of shop.
Yesterday I plunged into the waters of London Cuisine to bring you a report on places to eat on the fringes of Soho: covering Japan, Mexico, and India, with a small detour into Anglo-French; looking at the deli, the chain take-away, the tea room, and the informal/haute restaurant. All of the following places are within easy walking distance of both each other and the tube. No main dish will cost you more than £20, and most of them cost less than £10.
Closest Underground Station: Piccadilly Circus is less than a minute away from the entrance.
Price range: Most dishes are under £5
The Japan Centre is fundamentally a deli counter and tiny food court in the middle of an import supermarket. It is accessed via a mirror-lined escalator which is just wide enough for one person, through a kind of straits between two take-away stands selling takotaki and and buns, and a row of shelves threatening you with cheap donburi bowls and cat-glazed sake cups.
Your options on arrival are to either browse the cold shelves for pre-prepared sushi, sashimi, donburi bowls, assembled throwaway bento boxes, etc, or to go up to the deli counter and ask for food from the array there, which can be heated on request. You pay at the tills, along with the people buying from the supermarket section, and get red tape on your eat-in purchases to assure staff you’re not just arbitrarily eating things off the shelves without paying for them.
As this is a food hall, don’t expect much in the way of lavish comfort. As this is a deli, also don’t expect to pay a fortune – I took a chicken katsu onigiri from the fridges, a piece of pork tempura, and a shiso salmon stick from the counter for my brunch and the whole thing came to less than ten pounds. The onigiri wasn’t even £2. You come here for food which is quick-to-immediate, very affordable, and excellent value: everything I bought was straight-up delicious and exactly the way I wanted to start my day.
Given that you’re in the middle of a supermarket there’s also pretty much an endless array of choice if you want to supplement your hot & cold purchases with packet desserts or cold puddings: the dessert fridge contains a huge selection of fresh cheesecake pots, individual mochi, and just next to it is a freezer full of tiny ice cream tubs.
Definitely the place to go for cheap Japanese food: don’t waste time and energy trying to find a branch of Yo!Sushi (similar price range) when you can come here and have something a hundred times better and spend, often, less.
Closest Underground Station: Mid-way between Leicester Square and Tottenham Court Road
Price Range: A standard burrito is about £6.50, with guac around £8.70 (who eats burrito without guac anyway)
A warning to visitors from North America (Americans, Mexicans, Canadians): this is probably not what you’re expecting when you suffer from a burrito craving and decide to go and avail yourself of one. “It costs more than two dollars!” you cry, angrily, outside the grey frontage. “Where’s the limitless soda pump? Why isn’t this fifteen tonnes of grease and corn syrup? I QUIT.”
The elements which make this Not A Real Burrito Ugh Omg according to my American informants are however the elements that make me enjoy it.The brand here appear to be committed to fresh ingredients: the lettuce certainly is crisp and the steak chunks came to me fresh out of the fryer because the servers didn’t like the look of the ones that were already waiting in the basket. The servers: not me. Another blow for the culture of complaint! Similarly, the whole thing isn’t swimming in relentless grease, doesn’t taste of HFCS, has normal rice in it, and in general looks fairly wholesome both in its assembly and consumption. Also: is a sizeable meal for the hungry without being a watermelon-sized monstrosity. For the sake of completion I’m letting these two paragraphs stand: I was given the impression by a loud, disgusted complaint of being unimpressed as we passed the TCR branch that said American was talking about the UK iteration of the US chain (as regional variants are pretty common in chain eateries), and based on my own sad experiences of American food I filled in the gaps: she’s since explained that actually it’s Chipotle in general that fails to fuel her fire. For all I know, there’s no difference at all. There’s always Wahacca!
An ethos of fresh/vaguely healthy food isn’t for everyone – indeed, if you’re suffering from the acute need for something dirty and satisfying Chipotle probably isn’t the place for you, but there is fortunately a greasy pizza stand every three metres in this part of London so you shouldn’t despair. As to the rest of us: sit down on one of the squashy-topped stools at the brushed steel counters or stroll out onto the street with your fat burrito baby and enjoy a hot meal.
Closest Underground: Oxford Circus
Price range: a pot of tea or hot chocolate will set you back £3.50, afternoon tea is more.
In terms of ambience and cheerful, friendly service Camellia’s is a solid winner, tucked away on the top floor of Kingly Court and stuffed to the rafters with pretty tea ware, attractive cakes, tins of different teas, and helpful staff. A clear winner with the Afternoon Tea crowd, we spotted two tables of separate groups of young ladies Instagramming their towers of cake and sandwiches: as well they might, because the array was highly attractive.
Unfortunately, I made the mistake of going to a speciality tea house and ordering a hot chocolate, which arrived watery and badly-mixed, with the chocolate grounds lurking malignantly in the bottom of the cup no matter how hard I stirred. This was unfortunate, as the pistachio macron I ordered with it was an exercise in restrained heaven. Caveat emptor, then, and stick to what they’re good at: tea. Though I heard no complaints about the coffee, either.
Closest Underground: Oxford Circus
Price range: around £20 maximum for a main, £8-10 for a cocktail, under £10 for a starter.
No flies on Cinnamon Soho. Part of a brand which includes far more upmarket and haute cuisine offerings from the subcontinent, the Soho branch is significantly more relaxed and informal without compromising on décor (slick, black, minimal, comfortable, and intimate) or, importantly, taste.
Being somewhat full after a day of tramping around London consuming chocolate and doriyaki every three steps, the restrained portion sizes at Cinnamon were distinctly welcome, as was the unexpected two-for-ten-pounds offer on the cocktails. I opened with tandoori salmon (tender, thoroughly-cooked, crisply-spiced, served with pea purée), moved on to spinach dumplings made with paneer, in a tomato & fenugreek sauce and served with rice (crisp and delicious, with just the right amount of sauce to keep the dumplings and rice moistened but not enough to swamp them: a scientific proportion I am sure has been worked out carefully through experimentation), and finished with an excellently-poached peer served with rice kheer (which I haven’t had since I lived in the country 25+ years ago but apparently still miss) and cinnamon ice-cream, plus the mandatory smears of coulis which I can’t bring myself to mock because they genuinely did add to the flavour.
Accompanied by a long, cool Garden Martini (elderflower and cucumber, as I vainly try to guilt summer into happening), the only snag was that I’d ordered Masala mash and didn’t receive – although as by that point I didn’t have room for it and we weren’t billed for it I’d say that wasn’t as much of a problem as it could have been, and certainly not worth complaining over. Great service, from affable and unintimidating waiters (certainly compared to our last dining-out experience at Wilton’s, which was frankly too frightening to write about!), and a timely and unhurried meal was just right to wrap up a long day savouring the delights of Soho.
On a sadder note, a day in Soho has made it all the clearer that the area is being blasted into nothingness. There are already gaping holes in a once-familiar skyline, blank shutters on Berwick Street, and nothing new or similar to replace the emptiness. Many moons ago, ahead of the curve, The Correspondents lamented, “Oh, no, what’s happened to Soho… oh no, where did all the reprobates go?” and now the rest of the arts fraternity have caught up:
Don’t let a unique and important part of London turn into yet another slew of luxury investment flats for people who fail to so much as live in them.