Soho Horror Story
A nightmare time at a fashionable Soho steakhouse
Culinary crush: James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano (©HBO)
On February 9, 1935, Unity Valkyrie Mitford, the most eccentric of those six famous sisters, wrote to her father Lord Redesdale describing “the most wonderful and beautiful day of her life”. Having installed herself in a Munich pension the previous year, Unity had commenced a le campaign of stalking and staring in the Osteria Bavaria restaurant, the favoured lunch spot of her idol, Adolf Hitler. Her strategy finally paid off when Hitler invited her to his table, where, after a lengthy conversation, the Führer presented his 21-year-old fan with a signed postcard: “To Fräulein Unity Mitford, as a friendly memento of Germany and Adolf Hitler.” Unity succeeded in becoming a member of Hitler’s inner circle, remaining in Germany until she attempted suicide at the outbreak of war.
Hitler has to win the prize for Weirdest Crush in History, but apparently Unity was not alone. A quick trawl of the net reveals a startling number of women confessing to Führer fantasies. I am extremely grateful that my subconscious has never played me such a cheap shot, but I have to admit to some fairly unlikely pashes. At the moment I fancy someone who isn’t even real — spy novelist Mick Herron’s overweight, flatulent, sardonic and perversely sexy creation, Jackson Lamb. I’d take him over James Bond any day.
When I lived in Manhattan, I attempted a Unity-style stakeout of James Gandolfini, the actor who played my fantasy lover du jour, Tony Soprano. Gandolfini was reportedly a regular at Strip, a steak joint on East 12th Street. Vast slabs of meat and cheesecake came with lashings of self-conscious irony on the side, all red flock wallpaper and low lighting, and whiling away the evenings in the hope of a glimpse of my balding, overweight — yes, there is a theme here — madly erotic crush showing up, I consumed a reckless amount of rib-eye. (It would be unkind to note that apparently so did Gandolfini, as he died of a heart attack in 2013 aged 51.) We never met, and I still haven’t really got over Tony, but I did conclude that I would happily never eat a fatty steak again.
Fat is fashionable once more, presumably much to the delight of many restaurant critics, who have been banging on about its joys for years. Marbled, yellow, gushing fat, threading its flavour through any steak worth the name in waves of unctuous umami — a proper respect for fat is pretty much an entry level qualification for a food writer. Despite my efforts with the rib-eye, though, I’ve never come round to it. Not the taut, firm edging of a fiorentina, not the degenerate cow cellulite that is wagyu. Raw meat, yes. Grouse so high it has developed a soul, yes. Crimson fleisch and puddles of blood, venison, hare, even horse, but fetishistically hung mosaics of cholesterol-speckled steak? Fat, for me, just interferes.
So I wasn’t that thrilled to be going to Zelman Meats in Soho, the junior carnivore’s branch of Misha Zelman’s successful steak empire (which includes the more upmarket Goodman and the tremendous bore which is Burger and Lobster). “The Picanha is lean,” coaxed my friend, “you’ll love it.” I wasn’t convinced. Zelman also features the obligatory open kitchen and I like the smell of fat in my hair as much as I do its taste, but I’d probably be a nicer person if I made more effort to Join In, so I went.
At least it was quiet, for a Thursday night in Soho, with quite a few empty tables scattered about. Our waitress showed us to a cubbyhole next to the lavatory.
“Might we sit there, please?” asked my friend, pointing to a more attractive spot.
The menu at Zelman is minimal, all the focus being on the meat, which is priced per 100g. We went for the Brazilian cut, sliced Picanha with an order of chimichurri, the zingy green Argentine sauce, and Chateaubriand with béarnaise.
“You should try the dirty steak,” suggested our waitress. “We smoke it here.”
“You really should.”
We explained we were quite happy with our choice, but she wouldn’t relent.
“Have the Jerusalem artichoke as a side,” she enthused. My friend had had artichoke for lunch, so she didn’t want any more gassy root vegetables.
“You should get the artichoke,” repeated the waitress, a manic glint in her eye.
“But we don’t want it, thank you.”
“You should, though.”
“We’re going to have the Portobello mushroom.”
“Have the artichoke.”
“Please, can we just have what we ordered?”
She glared at us. “Suit yourselves.” I rather thought that was the point of going to a restaurant, but I was too intimidated to say so.
The meat was banged down with sides of triple-cooked truffle parmesan fries and broccoli with chili and anchovies. The waitress had taken it upon herself to correct our wine order, substituting a Barolo for an Argentine Mendoza.
“Shall we send it back?” my friend asked in a small voice.
The Picanha was indeed lean and the thickly-sliced Chateaubriand blue, as we had requested. The chimichurri proved to be a virulent green oil slick that may once have been introduced to some coriander but then swiped left. Perhaps the Bearnaise had been made in the kitchen, perhaps not, but we felt too sorry for it to inquire further. The “chips” appeared to have been hacked out with a hoe, lumpen sods of tuber barnacled with chewy lumps of summer truffle; the broccoli was rebarbatively al dente, served in unmanageable branches. Our waitress decided not to bring the mushrooms. The whole mess was insultingly clumsy and thoughtless — we poked our way dispiritedly through the steaks and abandoned the rest.
“I told you to have the artichokes,” declared the waitress as she eventually cleared the untouched plates.
I won’t bother describing the interior of the restaurant or the desserts since we were too exhausted to attempt to order the latter and I sincerely hope you won’t be seeing the former. Zelman Meats brought a new meaning to the phrase “fat Nazi” — pompous, bullying, ignorant and ugly. Unity might have loved it. Tony Soprano would have sent a Molotov cocktail to the kitchen and taken me for a pizza, in my dreams.