NOW CLOSED ……Rex & Mariano, Soho. My boat has come in.
“What do you mean we have to order using an iPad?”, says J, making her mind up in seconds and not in a good way. And the table is only for two hours because we are a party of fewer than five. We get a little “hmmph” before she realises that the iPad thing brings the service charge down to 5% and thus makes sense in economic terms and as a CEO, she is all about the money.
In a little collision of worlds, I’ve worked on this exact restaurant premises, having negotiated a lease on behalf of what was to be the flagship for an upmarket chain of Mexican restaurants, back in the late 1980s. Jose Cuervo tequila were involved in the operation and there were a number of pre-service meetings, where there were tastings of numerous alcoholic beverages, for research purposes, obviously. They were, you will not be surprised to hear, my very favourite client of the time, but after a few years of trying to sell posh Mexican grub to unsuspecting and unready Londoners, they threw in the tacos and upped sticks back to the US. I was bereft; my liver was grateful.
Back to the present and there is some slight confusion as the waitress tells us there are no white wines by the glass, but that turns out to be wrong and we order the first of many. As well as the Palermo, a gin and grapefruit cocktail, at a very reasonable/dangerous £7, brought to the table almost instantly on pressing the order tab on the screen.
The restaurant is very canteen in style, with a large open kitchen/prep-area at the back and tables on various levels scattered around the floor. There’s a quiet area on the left hand side, away from the main drag and if you want a more sedate evening, I suggest you request the left.
We went into the body of the beast, fairly sedate at 6:45, fairly rocking by 7:30. I take control of the iPad because that is how it works and I start scrolling and ordering with abandon because I simply have no self-control when faced with such words as Sicilian Red Stripe prawns, or Native Rock Oysters, or courgette fries, in fact particularly courgette fries, the its-not-as-bad-as-chips carb of choice.
J wants the seabass ceviche, with coriander, yuzu, (citrus dressing) red onion and tiger’s milk (a marinade made variously of ginger, garlic, coriander, lime and chilli). The fish is silky and firm, the dressing subtle; my own preference is for a little more citrus punch, but it’s delicious and we are happy and J is even letting me share.
I go for the Native Oysters (£3 each) but only order two because I have already pressed the order button too many times. The oysters are superbly fresh and slide down with ease, lubricated by some fruity vinegar with an unexpected sweetness, perhaps a tad too sugary for the lemon/oyster combo, but not so much that I wouldn’t order it again.
I could have had a Dover sole for the very reasonable sum of £18 but J wanted Tuna and before I knew it my finger had pressed the send to kitchen button and within minutes it was there. A good-sized steak, cooked right through, none of that seared/raw business and slightly the worse for that. Not dry, but not quite as I prefer, though a coating of olive oil, blobs of pesto and the burstingly-ripe tomatoes sitting on top helped with the moisture content.
Tip: do not order something until you actually want it, because it will be there in minutes. If you are with someone who knows how to pace themselves, i.e. not me, it would be possible to make the meal last for more than 45 minutes and take a break, mid-course. If you are someone who likes their food delivered quickly and plays with the iPad like an over-excited child, you will believe that there is a God, but your meal will be over more quickly than you might wish.
Again with trigger-finger, I cannot help but order the Tuna Tartare, with sesame oil, chive, avocado and chili. Glistening cubes of firm tuna, dotted with chives, the sesame oil giving a pleasant and unexpected nuttiness, this is the dish with which to convert those friends who say they don’t like raw fish. They can intersperse mouthfuls of that with cigarettes of courgette, deep-fried, served with aioli. At one point it may have looked like I had a hand hanging out of my mouth, trying to stuff too many courgette fingers in at once. And when I say too many, I mean too many for Mr. Manners, surprisingly absent that evening.
My Sicilian Red Stripe Prawns came with lemon, red chilli and garlic and were big fat juicy beasts – four of them for £14. Because the menu doesn’t say how many you get, I thought it might be a monster prawn, like the Carabinero, which costs around £20 a pop elsewhere and so ordered two. Obviously we managed to eat all eight.
A man who I know to be Rex approaches the table with some Limoncello, on the house. I know it is Rex, because I have seen the website and the film of him on it. I also know him from his shop, The Chelsea Fishmonger on Chelsea Green, near my beloved Andreas Veg and I tell him I know him from Twitter. He worries that he is too sweary on it. Bless.
His best line in the film? “You only sell shit to someone once” although on how to cook fish, “butter a little lemon and parsley and leave it the fuck alone” is also a contender. I do adore a man with a potty mouth. And he’s right of course.
I do not know how The Chelsea Fishmonger gets into bed with a Sicilian (the Mariano) and how they both get into bed with the Russians behind Goodman and Burger & Lobster. Suppliers fronting restaurants operated by restaurateurs, not chefs. Ingredient-led simple food cooked to a formula, but slick, like the other Goodman Group offerings. No celebrity chefs, no complicated food, no frills.
The Verdict : It is possible to eat very cheaply at Rex & Mariano, in the same way that it is possible to have just the one glass of wine or the one slice of bread. If you’re the type of person who might be able to do that, I reckon you could get away with spending £40 a head and having an elegant sufficiency. If you are that person, you may not end up with the £135.98 bill (inc service) I was slightly surprised to receive at the end of the evening. Not that it has stopped me booking it again in a fortnight. There are some raw red prawns and they have my name on them.