WLC’s resident foodie, Lucy Shaw, heads to South American-inspired newbie Yopo at The Mandrake hotel in Fitzrovia for Parmesan churros, octopus tacos and a cherry-scented Pinot.
The concept: The pace of change in the London restaurant scene is so lightening quick, if you don’t keep an eagle eye on it, you’ll soon find the capital’s culinary landscape unregonisable. Yopo has filled the space where Serge et le Phoque once dwelled, and burnt brightly but briefly, before being given a makeover.
Its former incarnation was a London spin-off of a popular Hong Kong haunt masterminded by restaurateur Frédéric Peneau. The Mandrake is a chic boutique hotel featuring 30 rooms and three suites across four floors.
The brainchild of Beirut-born Londoner, Rami Fustok, the space is peppered with antiques and artworks from Fustok’s personal collection. Rumour has it the Mandrake suite boasts a Bedouin-style tent bed.
Named after a plant found deep in the Venezuelan jungle, Yopo fuses modern European and South American cuisine in a subtle, successful way.
The décor: The focal point of the hotel is a handsome courtyard heaving with hanging jasmine that gives off a divine scent at sunset.
Adding to the sense of escapism is an abundance of greenery, from swaying palm plants to giant Monstera deliciosa. Floor to ceiling glass windows overlooking the courtyard allow you to indulge your inner voyeur and snoop on the action at the bar, where a mythical half peacock half gazelle hovers above the bar.
The talking point of Yopo is a hand-painted mural featuring Rousseau-like jungle scenes of languorous leopards and cheeky monkeys. Initially indented to be painted straight onto the ceiling, the artist asked to take the panels home to be free to paint away from prying eyes.
The rest of the room has been tastefully redesigned with earthy wooden tables, grey velvet chairs and mustard yellow banquettes. The lighting is lovely and low and the ambient Ibiza Chillout-style soundtrack so soothing it’s soporific.
The food: The menu is one of those fantastic finds where you wonder if you can get away with ordering everything on it. The majority of the dishes are designed for sharing.
The feast kicked off with a trio of dazzlingly punchy raw beef, radish, shiso and sesame rolls huddled around a puddle of oil slick black sesame sauce. The fresh, aerating flavour of the shiso coupled with the iron-rich meat and peanut-scented sesame was inspired.
The highlight of the meal came early on with the arrival of a potato churro rolled into a Catherine wheel and flecked with tiny coffee grains and salt. To accompany it was a cloud of warm Parmesan cream dotted with bottarga.
When eaten in unison it created one of the most enjoyable and memorable flavour experiences I’ve had in a long time. Carb rich, creamy, salty and comforting, it’s the ideal hangover dish, but you don’t need a fuzzy head to appreciate it.
Another clever flavour combination saw sea bass ceviche married with blood orange and nasturtium, the tiny cubes of lime-laced fish floating in a neon orange pool of citrus. Salty bites of anchovy on sourdough could barely be seen under their fluffy Pecorino blanket, but exploded with super savoury umami flavour.
Signature dishes: One of the most exciting dishes we tried was the most humble sounding on paper – a plate of grilled calçots (Catalan spring onions) served with stracciatella, Romesco and basil.
I loved the boldness of the flavours, from the creamy comfort of the cheese to the garlic tang of the Romesco, and the texture offered by the crunchy onions in a contemporary twist on a Spanish classic.
Another triumph was simple salad of fried artichokes, kale, almonds, olives and lemon, which offered a kaleidoscope of salty and sour flavours, with olive oil drizzled crostini adding crunch.
Less successful was the grilled aubergine with soy, which was slightly slimy in texture, as eggplant often is. The most curious combination of the evening were tiny parcels of earthy celeriac ‘ravioli’ stuffed with sweet carrot – a delicate delight.
The drinks: Looking after the wine list is Melody Wong, who arrived at Yopo by way of 10 Trinity Square Private Club, where she worked alongside Jan Konetzki.
She is in the process of revamping the wine offering in order to shine a light on South American stars from Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and beyond. We began the evening with golden flutes of Palmer Champagne, an under the radar gem offering both biscuity richness and refreshment.
The wine of the night was Elemental Bob, a white blend from the Cape made with Chenin Blanc and Viognier. Creamy and rich with a lick of oak, it proved a versatile companion to most of the dishes.
A 2012 Pinot from Domaine François Lumpp in Givry charmed with Bakewell tart aromas of cherry and almond.
The cocktail menu is well worth a look. My Palo Santo apéritif blended Tapatio Blanco Tequila with kola nut soda and lime juice to lip smacking effect.
Who to know: Our waitress Marta from Pescara was charm personified.
Don’t leave without: Paying a visit to the loos in the basement. On your way you’ll pass a sign informing you that a ‘performance is in progress’, giving you the impression you’ve lost your way at a Broadway theatre.
The loos seem sprung from Liberace’s imagination, all black and gold and illuminated round mirrors. On our visit former Waitrose Food editor and The Telegraph’s new critic, William Sitwell walked in in a sharp suit, accompanied by a shaggy-haired male companion.
Last word: Having never dined at Serge et le Phoque, I’m unable to make a comparison, but The Mandrake seems to have created a winning combination at Yopo of interesting, innovative, inventive flavours in a chic contemporary setting.
The dishes don’t shy away from punchy flavours and the attention paid to texture is highly effective. Once the wine list is tweaked to include Southern Hemisphere stars, Yopo will become a go to destination for those wanting to be whisked away to South America, if only for an evening.
Yopo, The Mandrake Hotel, 20-21 Newman Street, London W1T 1PG; Tel: +44 (0)20 3146 7770