What’s a suitable word count for a food blog?
I always take a little pride in delivering what I want to say in as few words as possible, but feel with Archipelago I may face my greatest LadyLovesCake brevity challenge to date.
In my short time moonlighting as a very amateur pseudo food writer, I’ve taken a ride on the Orient Express and sat in a brand new Rolls Royce – all without leaving Zone 1 – and for this assignment I donned my beige flannels to head out on safari, in the wild savannahs of Fitzrovia.
I was set to go the whole hog. And by hog I mean…zebra.
Yes, Archipelago throws the beef/pork/lamb/chicken/fish formula out of the window. It serves zebra. And crocodile. And python. And kangaroo. (Although I realise Australasian marsupials scupper my safari analogy). And ok, yes, it does serve chicken and pork, although I imagine they source only the most dandy of hens and pigs for the job.
The Archipelago experience can easily be split into two distinct areas – the theatre and the food. One is distinctly more successful than the other. Mercifully, the winner is the cuisine.
Let’s get the former out of the way nice and quickly.
For as long as I can remember I’ve had a low tolerance to gimmickry with food. Even as a child I couldn’t be won over with a McDonald’s Happy Meal or a Kinder Egg – I’d have happily traded in the choke-hazard toys for more chips or chocolate.
Archipelago goes in for this ‘theatre’ in a big way. From pointlessly being given a password to enter the restaurant (eurgh!), to having menus so tightly rolled you need a weight at either end in order to keep it open long enough to read (euurrggh!), to being given a tiny white pellet on arrival, which with the addition of water bursts open to become a hand towel (euuurrrgggh!), to a dining room so cluttered with a hotchpotch of chintz and lit so dimly it’s as if they don’t want you to see what’s going on (euuuurrrrggggh!) – the initial experience is somewhat over-the-top and bizarre.
I can’t deny it – for the first ten minutes of my time at Archipelago I totally had my frown on (much to the annoyance of The American, with whom I was dining).
But over the next couple of hours it got better. Much better. Because once I’d mentally compartmentalised these annoyances, one thing can be said for certain – the food is really something.
As is usual, I had fully scoured the menus online before arriving and had my heart set on the python Carpaccio to start, so was disappointed to learn the snake man had not delivered (apparently it’s not easy to source – although I’m sure they could have found grass snake in the Waitrose Essential range).
Instead I plumped for the ‘Serengeti Strut’ – described on the menu as ‘crispy zebra jerky, boerewors, carrot and ginger fluid gel and biltong soil’. A large pile of lean meat was delivered, both crispy and chewy – delicious when dipped in the tangy carrot and ginger sauces with a dusting of the finely-blitzed biltong. All the flavours put together went to create a perfectly delicious and well thought out dish.
However, it was The American’s vine leaf-wrapped crocodile, with plums poached in honey and tangy picked samphire which really stood out. Deep layers of flavour burst out one-by-one – the acidity of the samphire cutting through the warmth of the honey – both happily accompanying the light and tender reptile.
Spiced confit duck leg followed for The American whilst my stomach ordered the most expensive item on the menu, a rump steak of bison, delivered wonderfully pink and served with baked potatoes pumped full of blue cheese and a small Caesar salad.
It’s worth noting at this point that ‘traditional’ meats are peppered throughout the menu, as are vegetarian dishes. Oh and bugs. They also serve bugs!
Owing to the size of the savoury dishes, dessert was a one-between-two affair – a chocolate soufflé spiked with cardamom, alongside a scoop of curry ice cream.
I had a full stomach and a smile on my face – pretty much the two things I hope for from any meal.
The damage was quite damaging – £160 all told (although two glasses of Champagne and a double shot of hard liquor from the slightly odd and pointless ‘what the doctor ordered’ cabinet went some way to adding to that total).
I can’t help but feel Archipelago will be a one-time experience for me. While the food felt like experiencing a wonderful Royal Shakespeare Company production, everything going on around it felt more like Chipping Sodbury Amateur Dramatics Society.
The paraphernalia is distracting and unnecessary, especially when there is someone in the kitchen who clearly knows what they’re doing.
A rapturous curtain call was due, but no standing ovation and no encore.
Many thanks to Zomato, for making this meal happen and generously subsidising part of the meal.
Archipelago can be found at 53 Cleveland Street, London W1T 4JJ. Nearest tube is Goodge Street.