I'm going to make a confession. As a restaurant critic, I hate theatrical food experiences. I despise kitschy, themed dining rooms, and I want to leave any meal that relies on elaborate performances of smoke and mirrors to make patrons "wow" at their table.
And so, when I was told a restaurant in Central London's Mayfair would have me jumping out of my seat from the excitement of their entertaining dining experience, I didn't even hide my dramatically extreme eye roll. And it didn't help when they told me that the food was Asian / Spanish / Mediterranean. The jumbled amalgamation of "fusions" presented as a list of nations separated by forward slashes sounded like my worst nightmare.
In fact, if I didn't then discover that the restaurant in question, StreetXO, was from renowned Spanish chef David Muñoz, I would have written it off completely. Rather, in all honesty, it actually explained a lot. The creative genius behind Madrid's three Michelin star restaurant DiverXO, Muñoz is known for extravagantly creative cuisine that challenges the norm, both visually and by taste. His entrance into the competitive London food scene at the end of 2016 with StreetXO has certainly raised numerous eyebrows. Its style is anything but orthodox, but Muñoz is a culinary maverick, unafraid of breaking convention, and upon entering the restaurant, I'm expecting a truly nonpareil experience.
Walking down the stairs of StreetXO, I enter a dimly lit basement, accented by loud neon signs, a bustling open kitchen, and a large marble cocktail bar. Starting my evening at the bar, the cocktail list served as an overture for what was to come later. I order the "Drinking Pekin' Duck", and am presented with a Chinese takeout box, with accompanying chopsticks. Opening the box, I face a layer of two liquids - one dirty orange colored liquid of mezcal dressed with Shaoxing wine, and one bright green layer of lime and cucumber soda floating above that. Along the rim of the glass sit three delicately placed droplets of raspberry hoisin syrup, with the smallest piece of baby cilantro wedged on top. On the opposite side of the rim, a smothering of dehydrated duck - the rough, brown powder, an ingredient this traveler has never seen before in his life, inside or outside of a bar. I soon learn that the majority of the food and drink at StreetXO is to be experienced through a instructed process. "You use the chopsticks to stir and mix the drink, and then you lick the duck powder, and then the hoisin. Then you make sure you have those flavors in your mouth when you drink the cocktail." It's a nerve-rackingly complex process for a drink, but the end result is humorously successful. It's a conglomeration of a dry saltiness from the savory dehydrated duck powder thrown against the sweetness of the hoisin and the mezcal. The lime and cucumber bring it together with a welcomed kick, and it's a confusingly pleasant taste, with familiar tones of the popular Chinese classic dinner. Scratching my head at what I had just sipped, my dining companion's drink, a cocktail based on a Tom Kha Kai curry didn't help my state of mind. A Cachaça rum base, with galangal, coriander, kaffir lime, and chili mixed in before being topped with tobiko (flying fish roe) and coconut powder. It's one of the strangest drinks I've ever consumed, with the gentle sweet fruitiness of the Cachaça interrupted by the sharp spice of the galangal and chili. The tobiko almost plays the role of popping boba balls in an Asian pearl milk tea. It's, again, something which on paper shouldn't work. But it somehow does.
There is an unmistakable element of absurdity to StreetXO's cocktails, and a level of superfluous extravagance that can, at times, be a little too much. From cocktails served in glasses the size of soccer balls to drinking out of large, graphic (and accurately anatomically correct) hearts, one might question how much of the exorbitant beverage experience is necessary. But that's Muñoz's schtick, and don't ask for a vodka soda if you're at his bar.
We're led to our table by the host, and upon walking through the dark and modish dining room, pass a huge open kitchen, where a sea of chefs are racing around, furiously roasting on open fires, garnishing the final touches with grandiose flourishes. Instead of traditional chef whites, they're all dressed in straitjackets, which Muñoz explains, is an indication of how crazy the culinary minds behind the brand are.
The menu at StreetXO features a series of small plates intended to be shared, and it follows the restaurant's intention of being a social experience rather than a traditional dinner. Our first dish arrives, and sets the unmistakable tone of the evening. Before us sits a dish that looks like a Jackson Pollock depiction of murder scene from Dexter. Aggressive lashings of bright red strawberry hoisin is sprawled across a sheet of white paper, where Pekinese dumplings sit served with crunchy pig's ear and pickles. We're instructed to grab the dumplings by hand, and smear them around the hoisin sauce. The curious pairing of textures is wonderfully successful, full of intense flavor in a moreish, gluttonous bite. The chewy gluiness of the dumpling, heavy and staunch, is offset by the crunchy bite of the pig's ear, and the sweet tang of the hoisin unifies all elements perfectly. The careful use of ito togarishi (angel hair chili), one of my favorite garnishes, adds the extra level of spice with its warm, fruity after kick. It's a dish that tastes as good as it photographs.
It's a messy affair, with many of the courses eaten by hand. Muñoz's play on fish and chips, Usuzukuri of Hamachi with Aji Amarillo and yuzu, is a wonderfully refreshing morsel. Again, we're instructed to pick up the strip of Hamachi with our fingers, sandwiching the purple chip into a beautiful tasty bundle. An Indonesian beef rendang is sacrilegiously converted into a taco, with pico de gallo, guacamole, and parnip puree, and while slightly over vigorous, somehow manages to successfully result in a rich and full flavored flight between Southeast Asia and Mexico.
The robata-grilled pigeon is clear example of Muñoz's commitment to wildly creative yet technically immaculate cooking. The French pigeon is cooked to the millisecond of perfection, with its arduous grilling method resulting in a perfectly tender and richly succulent breast and leg. Sitting with Muñoz's vibrant revamp of migas manchegas, a traditional Spanish fried breadcrumbs dish, the dish is brought together by a lovely, sweet blood-red achiote sauce. The end result is an impeccable treatment of pigeon, reflective of Muñoz's cultural and culinary heritage.
It hasn't been all smooth sailing for the Spanish chef. One or two dishes on the menu were gratuitous in their experiential elements, or seemed simply like a superfluous list of ingredients. Desserts generally, while aesthetically and visually beautiful, lacked the complexity and depth that was shown in savory dishes. StreetXO has received a mixed reception, and it's worth noting that the unorthodox dining experience is not for everyone. The schismatic presentation of different cuisines by the energetic and animated staff requires an open mind and appropriate dining company, and you can't walk into the Mayfair location with expectations of total control that's normally seen at fine dining restaurants with a similar price tag. To Muñoz's credit, the restaurant has significantly evolved over the past few months, with constant menu changes, and adjustments to the restaurant's interior elements. Opening a restaurant in London can be difficult for a prodigious rebel like Muñoz. Finding the right balance between an eccentric culinary hallucination derived from an insatiable appetite for pushing boundaries, and diner comfort is a tough ask.
But you don't go to a David Muñoz restaurant to be comfortable. This isn't a night of "traditional" theatrical, gastronomical dining at all. It's a night where carefully executed creations - creatively composed, high quality food - take you on a robust multi-sensory interplay of flavors; where you're a participant in an intense orgy of culinary energy and passion. You can't fault Muñoz for his excessive absurdity and outrageousness. His desire to give guests the most idiosyncratic and marvelous dining experience needs to be embraced, as it comes with a technical flair and educated sophistication rarely seen in this setting.
As StreetXO continues to evolve with its diverse audience, it will find that digestible median between inventive insanity and esculent dining. But during that process, diners with an open mind, an inquisitive appetite and a childlike willingness for adventure can be guaranteed one of the most memorable nights out in London that you'll ever taste.