La Bodega Negra: Review

by thewheatandthechaff

When the ridiculously hyped La Bodega Negra opened its doors in Soho last month serving “Mexican food, street, beach and freestyle”, split across two venues and levels, I was both mildly intrigued and hugely sceptical about visiting. It’s co-owner Serge Becker has serious pedigree and is the main reason behind the hype. He already owns the impossibly hip taco stand and secret basement speakeasy La Esquina in New York, among a number of other high-profile ventures including the notoriously exclusive ‘Box’ clubs in NYC/LDN.

Becker is undoubtedly a master of his craft at generating A-list buzz around his venues, as evidenced again most recently by the endless stream of photos of Keira, Kate and Co, papped spilling out of taxis on their way to La Bodega in the days after it opened.

My scepticism here stems from a longstanding dislike of these kinds of places: ‘be-seen-at’ bars, clubs or, most unforgivably of all, restaurants, that attract plenty of celebs and paparazzi but are often completely soulless, underwhelming experiences full of absolute dickheads (I’m looking at you Nobu, ECC Chinatown etc).

My intrigue, however, was piqued, and ultimately won over by the prospect of a good Mexican restaurant finally arriving in London. For a city which, arguably, offers the most excitingly diverse array of well executed cuisines in one place, Mexican food has until now –  a few decent burrito places and the well-regarded Wahaca chain aside – been woefully under-represented. Consultant chef here is Richard Ampudia, who comes from Mexico City via La Esquina, so the omens were good, and two of us visited for dinner and drinks last week.

If the café on Moor Street is the London equivalent of La Esquina’s ground floor cantina – the low key and unassuming front of the business – then the restaurant, only accessible through a hidden entrance on Old Compton Street, is La Bodega’s take on La Esquina’s glamorous and hip speakeasy. The café is walk-ins only and has more of a relaxed lunchtime feel, whereas the reservations-only restaurant (when was the last time you read that about a new opening in Soho?), at least according to the blurb on the website, “serves a full dinner menu and hand crafted mezcal and tequila cocktails in a hacienda style cellar environment”. We opted for the restaurant. They had us at ‘tequila’.

La Bodega's secret entrance on Old Compton St. Tee hee.

The first thing to note is that the service, at least on our visit there, was absolutely first-rate. We were warmly greeted first by the hostess and then the restaurant manager. Despite seeming a little too pleased with himself about the gimmicky fake sex shop entrance, which must be the worst-kept secret in London by now (though I do wonder how many people genuinely stumble in there not looking for Mexican food) he was relaxed and engaging and totally redeemed himself later on by offering us a round of tequila shots in exchange for allowing him to change a light bulb above our table during dinner. Nice touch.

The restaurant is indeed done out like a big cellar, as promised. It felt to me a bit like an upmarket themed restaurant – a stab at recreating a luxury version of the bar in From Dusk Till Dawn – half rustic taverna and half plush seating and sexy mood lighting – which is probably not what they were aiming for, but it was dimly lit and pleasant enough, replete with the anticipated buzzy atmosphere and an eclectic soundtrack. We were sat at a regular table the other side of the centrepiece bar, though there were some more interesting themed alcoves for larger parties – Lucha libre masked wrestlers, Day of the Dead, that kind of thing – elsewhere.

Cocktails were, predictably, predominantly tequila-based and good, if not particularly exciting and a bit lacking in all-important punch when tequila is involved. Beers include Modelo as well as the usual Mexican easy-drinking staples. The food, however – and this is where La Bodega stands or falls for me – was simply a major disappointment.

On the face of it, the menu, or at least the first half of it, seems like good value. It isn’t.

We started, at the recommendation of our waitress, with the Mexican equivalent of a bread basket – tostadas with a side of guacamole (£5). I counted maybe half a dozen corn chips at the most, to go with a garlicky, potent guacamole. Nice enough.

Tacos are charged at £3 each (though many of which are bafflingly served upstairs in threes for £6). You also can’t mix and match, which seems like an oversight on the part of the restaurant. Of the three varieties we ordered by the pair, the perfectly cooked, still translucent sweet  prawn was the standout. The steak, however, was overcooked and chewy, and the chorizo, corn and squash was just bland. The biggest annoyance, however, was the size of the things. They were, at best, ‘tiny’, even for tacos. One bite jobs. Six quid for two mouthfuls is too much. This isn’t michelin-starred cooking by any stretch, but it’s michelin-esque portions and michelin-esque prices.

The crab tostadita (pretty much to scale)

Feeling stung, we tried a couple of the tostaditas – the crab (above) and the duck – which didn’t fare much better for flavour or value, at £4 each for what is essentially finger-food. Of the two, the combination of  white crabmeat, coriander and mango  was fresh and clean and enjoyable, but at this point we were beginning to feel pretty short-changed and regretting opting for the restaurant over the cafe upstairs. We resolved to share a main course and call it quits.

The mains did not excite on paper. Our waitress, who was faultlessly attentive and chatty throughout, explained that most of the mains were perfect for sharing (thank fuck for that, with roast lamb at over 40 quid and a ribeye steak priced at an eye-watering £58) and recommended either the mixed seafood and rice cazuela – essentially, a soupy paella – or the  spit roast chicken with potatoes ‘ahogadas’, whatever that meant. We opted for half a spit roast chicken, expecting it to arrive with golden crispy skin full of rotisserie flavour. It turned up a pale, naked lump of a thing, sat in a puddle of nondescript juice in a dish with a few soggy potatoes (the ‘ahogadas’, I presume?) strewn around it. Hardly extortionate at £16, but then again hardly good value for bland chicken and soggy spuds.

This is supposed to be big, punchy Mexican streetfood but it fails on flavour and on price and it feels like a rip-off. Just as I had feared, La Bodega Negra fails to live up to the hype. The service is faultless but, other than that, this feels like a classic example of style over substance, and I’d argue it’s not as stylish or as cool a place as they think it is.

Alexia looks unimpressed with La Bodega. I don't blame her.

I know the disappointing  food will do little to stop the hordes of celebrities and sceney types from flocking here, such is the allure of the owner’s reputation. Personally, I think the downstairs space would work far better if it were turned entirely into a late-night bar/club space and for them to stick with the street food angle upstairs in the cafe, which I’m still minded to investigate in the future in the hope that it offers better food at better value. However, after our last experience, I won’t be rushing back to either of La Bodega Negra’s venues any time soon. There are just so many better restaurants in Soho right now infinitely more worthy of your time than this place.

Interestingly, when Becker was interviewed recently by the Evening Standard during La Bodega’s construction, he was asked how he and co-partners Ed Spencer Churchill and Will Ricker would approach the door policy – a ‘marmite’ hallmark of his previous ventures – when they opened. “It’s going to be a learning experience to figure out who all the people are and how to mix them.”  He said.

Asked if he would allow the cast of The Only Way is Essex to enter La Bodega Negra, he faltered. “Well, personally, I’m very out of the loop on that part of culture, ’cause I don’t have a TV! So a lot of the time I just don’t know who is who. But I don’t think it will be snobbish like that.” Perhaps if Becker and company do wish for La Bodega to generate an air of chic NY exclusivity and celeb-magnet appeal, they should brush up on their pop culture, because when this man is turning up at your door, you’re in trouble, especially when the food is this average.