An uncivilised place for uncivilised people

Dining at the headquarters of International Bland

Lisa Hilton

“Are you reviewing the Sexy Fish?” asked my 13-year-old. “Isn’t that, like, really over?”

Fashionably late to the party is how we prefer to think of it. Sexy Fish opened in Berkeley Square, Mayfair in 2015. As every professional food critic knows, there’s no point in reviewing a restaurant in the first, flurried weeks of PR releases and free canapes. Only when the last of Carol Vorderman’s champagne halitosis has wafted through the door can one truly get the measure of a place.

Sexy Fish was opened by Richard Caring, proprietor of several other metropolitan feeding troughs for the undead, such as Daphne’s and Scott’s. It’s bang opposite Annabels, which might make it the left-hand portal of Hell. There is some “art” by Damian Hirst and Frank Gehry and a couple of football pitches’ worth of onyx. The interior (estimates as to the cost of which range from £15 million to £25 million) aims for opulence but barely scales the pinnacle of honest vulgarity; luckily the customers are there to help it achieve the final push.

Some years ago, I did a radio programme in the company of another restaurant writer. Before we went on air, we were asked the usual small-talk question to check the sound levels. What you had for breakfast or lunch is the form, so I muttered something obliging that probably involved a Swedish meatball wrap from Pret A Manger.

“I’ve just come from lunch at a private members’ club,” announced my colleague. It was sweet, really. A private members’ club? As opposed to a club which has members, as clubs frequently do? Somewhere that doesn’t let just anybody in? Exclusive? Like Soho House (membership 70k at the last count)?

Anyway, she loved Sexy Fish. Otherwise, I suspect that Mr Caring is handing out twofer vouchers in the first-class airport lounges of the world—I can’t think how else he manages to achieve such a delicate balance of ersatz cosmopolitan and witheringly provincial.

He knows his chickens, though. The menu, most of which seems to have been borrowed from Zuma in the early Noughties, is International Bland at its finest. Much of it is prepared on a robata grill, a method of preparation which derives from the traditional fishermen’s cuisine of northern Japan, where meat, vegetables and fish were seared—at varying speeds—over the irori, or open hearth. So some of the food is cooked, then. Some of it is also raw.

There are numerous tartares, sashimi selections and sushi constructions, all fungibly drenched in yuzu, ponzu, wasabi, ginger and miso and chilli and soy. There’s a £72 main of King Crab with Bone Marrow and Fresh Truffle, which I might have ordered if I was interested in having a go on Gargantua’s vomit. Caviar with steamed buns and smoked tofu (why why why?) features alongside carefully-curated oysters and the inevitable quivering slabs of wagyu beef. We are all for body positivity at Standpoint, but when is someone going to put those poor flabby beasts out of their misery and admit that the joke’s on us? Cow cellulite is not cool, people.

We settled on various types of gyoza dumpling—one prawn and one smoked mushroom—which were as edible as they ought to have been for 13 quid, and lobster tempura with smoked Marie Rose sauce along with green asparagus and smoked creamy ponzu. Perhaps they were giving the robata a clean.

Sexy Fish also offers tea, yours for £85 if you throw in a glass of Perrier-Jouët Blanc de Blancs. There’s a late-night menu served until 1am, in case anyone was missing room service, and a vast selection of Japanese whiskies. Many varied cocktails can be served to those who wish to drink a cocktail in Mayfair. The wine list is actually brilliant if you want to spend a lot of money on solid classics. If this is sounding blunt and factual it’s because I’m trying to convey some sense of balance about a place which excited such visceral horror.

I hated Sexy Fish. I hated myself for being there. I hated everyone else for being there, except the staff. I hated its brutal self-satisfaction, its philistine aesthetic, its joyless anti-vitality, its slavering worship of the broken idol of Mammon. It is an uncivilised place for uncivilised people. Sexy Fish is what God thinks of money.

There’s a good bit in Mario Vargas Llosa’s In Praise of the Stepmother where the idea of an “erotics of repulsion” is discussed with reference to the 1949 Francis Bacon painting Head. It’s possible, the Nobel prizewinner suggests, to find something so unspeakably revolting, so terrifyingly loathsome, that abhorrence is transposed into sexual energy. Disgust and desire conflate. Indifference, not hate, is the opposite of love, and the abyss has its own dark allure. As I said, Mr Caring knows his customers. This is what he means by “Sexy”.

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