I have a friend who treats ordering from a menu as a competition, rather like a game of cards. Especially if there is offal to be had: he has never quite said, “I’ll see your sweetbreads and raise you a spleen,” but that is his general thrust.
A liking for the bits of an animal other than prime cuts has become something of a badge of pride for food lovers: fostered by chefs like Fergus Henderson at St John, the philosophy of nose-to-tail eating is both ethically sound and, in gastronomic terms, often highly rewarding. While I draw the line at andouillettes – you have to have been French in a previous life, I think, to relish their farmyard fragrance – I am happy to try more or less any other offal. Two recent meals – one Taiwanese, one Mexican – reminded me that a skilful chef can transform even the humblest of cuts.
At XU, on Rupert Street, there is a glamorous, old-world woodiness to the decor, evoking 1930s Taiwan (there are private mah jong rooms should you fancy a night on the tiles), and a short-ish menu of Taiwanese delicacies, including beef tendon, refashioned as a sort of jellied, sausage-shaped terrine and thinly sliced, then doused in a hot and numbing (ma la, in Szechuan cuisine) chilli sauce: the sauce was actually more fearsome than the tendon.
There are lamb’s sweetbreads, too, crisply fried, creamy within, and pepped up with fermented greens. Less adventurous souls will also find plenty to tempt them: tiny shards of smoked eel in a tomato broth, for instance, or an excellent version of mapo tofu, vibrant with Szechuan pepper. XU has both style and substance, a rarity in Chinatown.
Meanwhile, Edson and Natalie Diaz-Fuentes, the couple who briefly teased Londoners’ palates at the Mexican Santo Remedio in Shoreditch two years ago, are back. The restaurant is bigger, bolder and better than before, with spacious new premises on Tooley Street (as well as the brightly decorated ground-floor dining room, there is now a lively bar upstairs).
I ordered ox tongue – Natalie confided that hardly anyone orders it, but she loves it, so it stays on the menu. It was superb: rich, firm discs of unctuously fatty meat, black-striped and smoky from the grill, a piquant slick of salsa rojo underneath, and a scattering of crushed peanuts on top.
I tried a dozen other dishes, with not a dud among them. A sensational bowl of prawn aguachile, spicy with red jalapeño and fragrant with fennel and citrus; top-notch cubes of tuna on a crisp tostada, with avocado, árbol chilli, sesame seeds and soy; and, best of all, pork belly tacos dressed with a sublimely tangy tomatillo salsa, crisp morsels of chicharrón (puffed-up crackling) adding crunch.
Any fan of great Mexican cooking (and, frankly, who isn’t?) should book a table at Santo Remedio. And please order the ox tongue, before Natalie changes her mind.