As a child of the 90s I’m always wary of misusing the word “ironic”, but consider this: this Christmas, a certain National Treasure is shilling a book called Mary Berry Cooks The Perfect. So far, so ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife. But also consider this: it’s pretty much a direct ripoff of a pair of books put out by Felicity Cloake, which take as their genesis her excellent, criminally under-praised ‘How to cook the perfect…’ scientific-meta-analysis-slash-cookery-column in The Guardian. So you have an established name parlaying her more prominent position by ripping off the title of an approach by another writer that is itself rooted in cherry-picking from other people's recipes. Now – isn’t that ironic, don’t you think?
Anyway. I found it interesting because questions of primacy and originality don't often find their way into the realm of the home cook. Part of the charm of Felicity’s column is that it captures what – for me – is the distinguishing and most lovely feature of home as opposed to restaurant cookery: the idea that we are all in this together; there is no space for ego or selfishness. Home cooking is a palimpsest; the cherished recipe you use every Sunday has probably passed through hundreds of hands on its eventual path to your table. There are certain secret recipes held close to people’s chests, but by and large, it’s an open, communal space. What works for you might work for me; what’s mine is yours. A rising tide lifts all gravy boats.
This idea would be anathema to some professional cooks. It's mostly Ferran Adria's fault: the dictum that "creativity means not copying" is perhaps the most influential thing to have come out of the kitchens of ElBulli, and explained a huge swathe of deeply unadvisable flirtations with textures, tastes, temperatures, and combinations a decade or so ago that were not creative so much as instantly derivative. As well as being built on a lie by omission – more questionable irony for you: that quote about never copying is actually stolen from a French dude – it is a nightmare to police: open-and-shut cases of naked intellectual property theft are as thin on the ground as genuinely unfortunate coincidences. More often, it strays into the grey area of “inspiration”; more often still we think we are doing something new when really it’s been done by someone else years – sometimes decades, centuries – before.
It might have started with Heston, or René, but more recently there has been a renaissance in chefs looking back, or around, in order to move forward: seeing the past and present as something to learn (rather than escape) from. I am grateful for this shift in mindset; I am happy that chefs are again coming round to the idea that great, truly original cooking – at home or in a restaurant – is profoundly accretive: pulling together the various cultural-historical-culinary artefacts that have influenced you as a cook and putting your spin on them to turn them into something delicious (and, if you're that way inclined, thought-provoking). Think of the celeriac root en vessie at Eleven Madison Park (although I can think of someone who’d disagree with me on that one); think of the mad historian-scientist genius of The Fat Duck; at a less crunchy level, think of the contemporary mania for ethnically ambiguous / melting pot / street-meets-comfort food – Mission Chinese Food; Black Axe Mangal; Berber&Q.
The staleness of the Adria approach is surely no better illustrated than at StreetXO. I have previous with the concept on Spanish soil – a few years ago we circled like vultures around the original concession at the top of a Corte Inglés, waiting for it to open with several like-minded others who had also arrived a healthy half-hour early (try getting a Spaniard to say that). When it did get going, it was revelatory, or certainly felt so at the time: the combination of globe-trotting novelty and the best excesses of 3-star, Adria-influenced culinary creativity distilled at Bib Gourmand prices. The minimalist setting served only to highlight the thrilling, vibrant, painterly presentation of food on white acetate; even if our attention and interest flagged after a few courses and the suggestion of repetition from a few too many similar techniques and presentations, we walked away delighted and excited. When it was announced that David Muñoz was spinning it out to London, we felt the same way all over again.
It was a long gestation – not usually a good sign – and the end results are something only a parent could love. It comes on like a spoof restaurant from American Psycho: a dizzying, sickmaking conflagration of neon and halogen and glass and exposed steel and exposed concrete and exposed flesh, straddling Tokyo and New York whilst also remaining promiscuously open to offers from anywhere and everywhere else. The staff are dressed in a style best described as Murder Circus: equal parts waistcoats and straightjackets (it is telling that multiple reviews of the place have dredged up the office suicide lament “you don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps”).
The cocktails are uniformly excellent, misleadingly so. I am particularly taken with the appearance of one that arrives in a novelty, Amy Schumer-sized glass; I am even more impressed with the less snazzy but legitimately delicious green juice I order, which reminds me of drinking Los Amantes mezcal in their tiny bar off the zócalo in Oaxaca (relatable, I know). Other, more showy presentations also prove to be as substantial as they are stylish. Could we be on the verge of a place that caminas the camino as well as it charlas the charla?
Even my Spanish is up to this: no. When we move to the table the menu is exhausting, exasperating. It feels precision-engineered to draw a shudder from the very depths of a conservative Englishman’s soul, exclamation marks (remember Fitzgerald’s dictum) jostling with the warped names of major cities (“Madrizzzzzz”) and the titles of traditional dishes given unexpected national modifiers (Korean lasagne, ramen Hong Kong). Presentation is heavy on novelty, and sometimes quite beautiful; it is an impressive sleight of hand to distract you from the fact that every dish would fit onto a traditional sideplate with plenty of real estate to spare. Almost everything is a play on something else; almost everything is ludonarrative dissonance on a plate, forcing you down one path – the new! The innovative! The reimagined! – whilst whispers of familiar flavours make you crave the original version of the dish that you remember more fondly. One platelet that arrives after a prolonged wait – you don’t have to be patient to eat here, but it helps – approaches classicism in its flavours: pork, ricotta, vaguely bao-ish steamed bread. It is tiny, but perfect. There is also an interesting prawn tartare thing, and a umami-heavy smoked scallop thing, and some OK dumplings, so not all of it is bad. But most of it is.
It seems churlish to complain when Muñoz is trying to forge a new path: pulling together inspirations from around the world in search of a mongrel, rootless cuisine that is interesting, new, original. But that’s giving him too much credit. At StreetXO, Muñoz is nakedly, openly, charmlessly, avariciously on the make. Dinner for four with a few cocktails approaches a hundred quid a head and we are far from full; we are deterred from ordering any more by the prospect of another grinding delay.
This is food for people who hate food, but love eating out; food for people who eat with their eyes and their camera lens; food for people happy to pay through the nose for the privilege of a white-gloved performer to come to your table and get all up in your Korean lasagne. It is tapas only in the distant etymological sense that everything is small enough to act as a lid to protect your drink between sips; otherwise it is an insult to your happy summery memories of pintxos and montaditos and croquetas by the fistful eaten in crowded rooms with wine and beer freely flowing. It is profoundly ungenerous.
In one of the unnecessary, unedifying scraps that arose when the originality / creativity-means-not-copying argument reigned supreme, Muñoz found himself embroiled in a Twitter beef with Grant Achatz, his former boss. It centred around dishes which – Achatz claimed – Muñoz had shamelessly stolen from Alinea: look at it with a certain pair of glasses on and you can see how each party might consider themselves wronged. But in this day and age, who cares? In 2016, a restaurant can make copying its modus operandi – In Situ, in San Francisco’s MOMA, riffs on the idea of curation by serving only other restaurants’ classic dishes – and be praised for it to the rafters, and as America’s most original new restaurant, no less. Muñoz is stuck in the past. In his insistence on the wacky, the crazy, the unfamiliar, the playful, he is clearly reaching for a sort of Adria-inflected definition of originality and creativity, and more by accident than design he has achieved nirvana.
Te presento a StreetXO, by one definition the most creative restaurant in London. There’s nothing here anyone should ever want to copy.