La Bodega Negra


Scrutinising a restaurants reviews online before going  has been a habit of mine for a while. I justify this due to the choice and variety on offer and feel it’s important to get a taste of what’s to come before you commit.

When a  restaurant explodes onto the scene with  hype and plaudits it quite often under delivers. It’s not their fault and the hype generated certainly is good for queues out the door, turning tables and being fully booked for weeks in advance – Meatliquor springs to mind. Likewise, when a restaurant is so roundly criticised by critics and previous diners comments alike it’s got to be awful- Beach Blanket Babylon.. or so I thought.

I ate at Beach Blanket Babylon in Notting Hill for a friend’s birthday last year and the customer reviews I’d read suggested this would be one of the worst dining experiences of my life and urged me not to go. In fact it turned out to be excellent. Attentive, knowledgeable waiters, delicious food and wine and not the overpriced bill I’d expected so now my only excuse is interest in how people gauge an enjoyable dinning esperience from my own.

 So it was again down to the reviews and a little hype that I booked  La Bodega Negra several weeks ago for my girlfriends birthday. We secured a table for 7pm on Friday. The reviews  a mixed bag of high praise and could-do-better mediocrity to preconceive my expectations. Telling friends where I was going, I had a lot of ‘ah, the one with the sex shop facade’ so hoped it wasn’t going to be a case of style over substance.

 Having walked through the neon lit doors we are met by two friendly gents sporting waistcoats and top hats peaked at jaunty angles who make a bit of a fuss over getting my jacket off us with ‘want me to hang that up babes?’ I can’t remember what affectionate greeting they address girlfriend with but I was puzzled at the connection between Mexican food, theatrical greeting and seedy entrance other than the obvious one of blending in with its surroundings. A mannequin dressed in a gimp suit cuts a lonely figure behind the front desk, listing to one side as if suffering the aftereffects of one too many tequilas and fallen victim to the door staffs dressing up box. It is however quirky and a bit silly so can’t offer too much criticism. It’s Friday night and we’re in Soho so why not but let’s eat first.

 We descend into a cosy basement bar following a rather falical neon arrow passed an open, bustling kitchen into the dining area. The only Mexican vibe I’m picking up so far is the original and witty use of vintage anatomical diagrams with lucha libre wrestling masks painted over their heads. The staff are young, attractive and in abundance. For somewhere reputedly difficult to book a table, it’s surprisingly empty but boy are there some staff there- I count 15 waiting staff alone. This does create a slightly rushed experience to begin with as they buzz about but now seated, we soon settle in with the arrival of frozen apple and lychee margaritas and Negra Modelo swiftly joined by some sesame tostadas and guacamole. The tostadas come as rather large,  tasteless corn discs and are not very user friendly, the guacamole however is chunky, fresh and flavorsome.  The frozen margarita’s, sharp, citrusy and boozy the beer ice cold.

 A mish mash of music plays at a lively volume but we’re able to hear ourselves without shouting.  West End Girls to The Pixies ‘Here Comes Your Man’ play, the soundtrack here confirming they know their target audience it’s just a shame it’s interspersed with non-descript Euro house and the abrasive r&b din they play at underwhelming ‘exclusive’ west end nightclubs for footballers and the audibly impaired.     

Perusing the menu as if I hadn’t already online, I chose lamb with drunken salsa tacos to start as our waitress pointed out it was taken from the slow roasted lamb also served as a main which I’d struggled not to order. With a squeeze of lime the lamb is as tender and melt in your mouth as you’d expect and the salsa is now drunken and fiery with the inclusion of some habanero sauce. These are delicious just regrettably served as a pair as I could easily have eaten four or five. We also order the chorizo and potato tacos, the chipotle smokiness moorish and flavoursome, the salsa again zingy and fresh but playing second fiddle to the lamb.

 Not an aficionado in terms of what’s authentic and what’s not having last been to Mexico aged 4, there is no mistaking quality &fresh ingredients. With this in mind I use Wahaca as the bench mark as the street food, canteen style they offer there is always fresh, delicious and importantly very reasonably priced. As La Bodega Negra offers a more grown up, fine dining take on Mexican food, a foray into street food better be excellent. As good as it was, it certainly wasn’t a cut above the successful chain alternative.

 I chose the pork belly mezcal with salsa verde and potatoes, mole negro to follow. My girlfriend has the red snapper on a bed of spinach with vera cruz style sauce and said it was delicious. Not being a fan of seafood I can only take her word for it.

The speed in which our tacos had arrived had made us feel slightly hurried and our 2 hour time limit was not at all in danger of running over. Our waitress was efficient, knowledgeable and friendly when seeking recommendations but from being seated to having our starters cleared all happened in around 20 minutes. Our mains arrive reassuringly with a pause in proceedings, had they come out production line style there would be serious concerns however it arrives and instantly hits the right notes. Two large cuts of belly pork with salsa verde on a bed of black beans arrive, the portions almost too generous.

The side order of fried potatoes quite possibly surplus to requirements but the accompanying mole negro warm, earthy and use of dark chocolate executed perfectly. I will add my perception of how perfectly executed this is only due to knowing how not to perfectly execute use of dark chocolate with my homemade chilli con carne’s being a case in point!

 We are left to enjoy, take our time and order more drinks. Pudding is not necessary as we want some energy for drinks elsewhere so we pay and make our way into the Soho night.

 I think there is a lot right with La Bodega Negra, the service is first rate and ingredients excellent however feel it’s slightly overpriced and a little unsure of its identity. I fear the statement entrance and reputation as a celeb haunt will carry it and the tweaks here and there will go unnoticed. I would recommend it but probably wouldn’t return.