It’s been called the most exciting place to eat in London ever. Sabina Legge hunkers down at Southbank’s most daring new eatery.
Less than two years ago, Michael Sykes had it all; after apprenticing under some of the world’s greatest chefs, he’d taken them on and, it seemed, beaten them at their own game. His own Sykes@ in the Bentley-driving part of E1 hung its two Michelin stars proudly over its Thamesside terrace; it was easier to fast-track the Honours List than it was to get a Saturday evening table.
But under the creativity that gave us lamb’s tongue meringues and iced dandelion cassoulet, Sykes’ mind was becoming like one of his own oxtail souffles; a just-brittle outside guarding a whipped centre unable to hold its own shape. After an infamous night during which he attempted to drown AA Gill in a sous-vide waterbath, Sykes disappeared, most of us thought forever, another casualty of the punishing pressure facing those who cook at the very sharpest of sharp ends, ends far sharper than even the sharpest of Japanese Kyocera ceramic boning knives.
When word emerged that Sykes was not only cooking again, but had re-invented the entire concept of dining, we couldn’t help but both stifle a yawn - after all, how many times have we been fed that particular PR line? - and feel our curiosity being stimulated. A visit seemed not only desirable but somehow our duty.
No booking? Check. No tablecloths? Check? So far, so tapas bar. But Sykes has taken the stripped-back standard so much further; there’s no tables, no chairs. Open kitchens are so last year - Sykes does all his cooking over a fire that sends yellow flame and bright amber sparks from the oil drum it burns in, out into the London night. This is the most basic of restaurants, so denuded of frippery that it doesn’t actually have a building; all of the cooking and eating takes place in the most intimate space, tucked alongside the river’s edge under Waterloo Bridge.
The wait for a table isn’t the usual ‘drink at the bar until we feel like letting you sit down’ so common these days; there’s a real element of theatre as other diners, dressed in clothes so outre they make Westwood look like East Ham, bicker over aperitifs - delivered in shared bottles, passed around among those who sit around the great man’s brazier, faces tinged saffron by the firelight. Facial hair seems de riguer, as does a form of communal language that bypasses the need for consonants, and sometimes for anything resembling words, altogether.
Waiters are also bypassed, as are plates and other non-essentials such as cutlery; the food is ‘served’ into a dish the size and shape of an upturned dustbin lid, and it’s pretty much every man for himself, tearing off hunks of peasant-style roast meats fragrant with the exotic woods burning in that huge unfathomable pit of fire. Behind the scenes Sykes himself is breaking up what look like enormous frames of wood, some of them marked with unknowable foreign markings and designs.
What is this meat we’re sharing with the others? Sykes remains silent, grunting only as he hauls another slab of it onto the flames - I believe I caught a glimpse of something resembling a rabbit, my companion swears he heard some form of yowling noise as fresh supplies were brought in - by other diners, who then joined the passionate throng waiting for the fire to do its magic.
There’s also a very set menu of accompaniments; a salad of fresh leaves, unidentified but with the petrichor scent of fresh grass, and I’m sure the heady clout of wild garlic shoots came through somewhere.
Finally, as though recognising us from the old days, Sykes himself approached us, offering a private view of his worn but still very serviceable chef’s knives. Not wanting to distract him from his new venture, we demurred and set off to find a taxi. As we ambled out into the brighter but more sterile lights of the RFH and Victoria, we could hear approaching sirens and the unmistakable blue lights of a fire engine. Obviously Sykes’ cooking appeals not only to the dedicated gourmet but also to the honest working man in uniform.
Sykes, under Waterloo Bridge. Dinner Tues - Sat, presumably. Prices negotiable. BYOB, but be prepared to share. Children/pets welcome, but keep hold of them.