Sola, London: ‘Everything is heartbreakingly perfect’ — restaurant review – Financial Times
The third leg of the Lockdown Campervan Tour brings me back into Soho. I’m revisiting one of the last restaurants that I reviewed before lockdown because things there have changed a great deal. Driving into the city, the streets are ever more sparsely populated until, by the time I reach Oxford Street, it’s deserted, save the occasional empty bus. There are roadblocks around the edges of the restaurant district, delineating a temporary pedestrianised zone that opens every evening. In happier times, I was in Soho a couple of times a week, part of a merry horde. Today, I’ve got a special “location vehicle permit” from Westminster council so I’m waved through to park splendidly alone in Soho Square. Honestly, if I saw a half dozen zombies lurching and moaning their way up Dean Street, it couldn’t be more surreal.
Sola is a California-style fine dining restaurant headed by Victor Garvey. Since lockdown, Garvey has been heavily involved in an effort to co-ordinate restaurateurs and landlords in the closely packed streets and appeal to Westminster council to permit turning the entire quarter into a kind of running restaurant festival for the rest of the summer. The initiative was badly needed. Without theatres, attractions and the tourists they service, without office workers out for an evening drink, Soho would be a ghost town and the restaurants, mostly independently run, could enter a death dive in short order.
“I’ve been in Soho for four years now. There was never really any camaraderie, no sense of community, so when John James of Soho Estates approached us with the idea of a Soho Street Festival, we had no idea it could be ‘a thing’ but then it got legs — momentum — and we got the concessions we wanted,” says Garvey. “In the process, something organic happened: we developed a Soho business community.
“We can talk to the council and they want to listen. They are happy to have a single point of contact. And, by the way, in doing so, we’ve saved a thousand jobs.”
Garvey has also taken a large side bet on takeaway having a brighter future. Footfall might be reduced but his customers and locals are some of the highest net-worth individuals in the country. He’s launched a kind of sub-brand, “Bentō by Sola”, through which a specially adapted version of the tasting menu can be delivered in a peculiarly luxe way.
Even spread on the collapsible table of an increasingly messy van, a multicourse tasting menu in a custom-designed nest of boxes is something to behold. Garvey has redesigned everything with the packaging especially in mind.
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There’s ikejime wild sea bass, recumbent on sake-steamed leeks, which is the best piece of fish in London tonight. Three sumptuously varnished sweetbreads on a bed of Coco de Paimpol beans and a hefty block of foie gras “au torchon” with a counterintuitive sauce that hints of XO. There are bite-sized jewels and substantial charges of flavour ordnance.
Everything is heartbreakingly perfect. I’m washed with guilt and text to ask if he expects customers to unpack and reverentially “plate” everything, but he laughs at the idea. “I’m kind of expecting people to enjoy this stuff straight out of the box, watching Netflix” — and he’s right . . . it’s a new category of eating. It’s expensive . . . but not so much that you wouldn’t treat yourself. Eating like this feels like a particularly lush piece of self-care when the rest of the world is circling the plughole. It’s mad and it’s brilliant.
There is something thrilling and ineluctably I Am Legend about hunkering down in such weird surroundings with food this good. I’m just squirrelling away a sushi-like roll of foie gras and crab leg when the first zombie’s bloodied hand smashes on the window . . . OK, not really. There are no zombies — just the Square, Dean, Greek, Frith and Old Compton filling slowly with diners and drinkers, sitting on carefully constructed terraces.
I loathe the word “plucky” and all it stands for but, right now, I can’t think of a better word for Garvey and his mad moveable feast, for the restaurateurs, landlords, diners and drinkers of my beloved Soho. It’s a shame this permit is only for a couple more hours or I’d happily order in a couple of cocktails and stay the night.
64 Dean Street, Soho, London W1D 4QQ, 020 7287 8716; solasoho.comTasting menu £109A la carte menu £69
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