Monday, 12 April 2010

Wahaca, Covent Garden

My housemate does not like birthdays. Not one bit. They tend to pitch her into a big black pit of not-happy and, with another one imminent, it was clear that some kind of tequila-based rope ladder was required.

We had both been keen to visit Thomasina Miers’ Wahaca for a while so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to give it a try. We arrived at the original Covent Garden branch around 7pm on a Wednesday to find the place fizzing. Reservations aren’t taken but a large buzzer was handed to us and we were told there would be a twenty minute wait for a table. Though there’s a bar area near the entrance, it was a real scrum and far too full to really relax with a drink, luckily at the 20 minute mark my buzzy thing duly buzzed and we were led into the innards of the restaurant, away from the din.

“Have you eaten here before?” our waiter asked ominously as we sat down, but fortunately this did not herald a long discourse on the concept and ethos of the place and we were quickly able to order cocktails.

Miers’ thing is Mexican ‘market food’ and Wahaca’s website says all the right things about locally and ethically sourced produce; she seems likeable and genuinely passionate about the cooking of this part of the world, but some of the reviews I’ve read have been a bit muted. The menu features a large array street food – tacos, tostadas and quesadillas, many available in vegetarian versions – but also includes more substantial dishes including a vegetable pipian. My housemate had her heart set on a pork burrito and I went for the intriguing fuerza salad (£7.10) with an order of the huitlacoche quesadillas (£3.95) on the side.

We began with a bowl of tortilla chips which came with a fresh tomato salsa with a nice zing of lime. A salsa verde and a chipotle dipping sauce were already on the table along with a neon orange bottle of hot sauce, which had a nice lingering heat rather than an aggressive burn. The chips weren’t overly exciting but they made a good accompaniment to our drinks: my housemate, true to form, went for the classic margarita, served in a salt-rimmed tumbler, while I went for the Wahaca Mule, which sadly lacked the kick of good ginger beer.

Now main course salads can often lead to disappointment, I speak from experience, but the combination of ingredients – including pickled hibiscus flower – piqued my interest. I usually prefer salads that feature a couple of clear flavours rather than the whole-heap-of-everything that I was presented with, but this was a nicely put together dish and I found that as I dug deeper different textures and flavours presented themselves to me. Beneath the top layer of salad leaves and crumbled feta, there were waiting chunks of roasted butternut squash, avocado and plump grains of spelt.

The quesadillas were also enjoyable, though the huitlacoche, a kind of corn fungus I believe, was quite subtle in flavour. We also shared a small pot of frijoles (£2.30), baked black beans topped with cheese; these were wonderfully earthy and dark. A second round of cocktails was soon required and this time I opted for the tamarind margarita which, with its subtle sour notes, was my favourite of all the cocktails we tried.

For dessert there was only one possible choice (well, there wasn't, but there was, if you know what I mean - it wasn't a sorbet kind of evening): it had to be the churros and chocolate (£3.50). We momentarily contemplated sharing a portion between the two of us but decided this path would only lead to squabbling and potential donut rage. Each plate came with three twists of fried dough and a cup of thick chocolate sauce in which to dunk them and while I suspect the churros could have been slightly lighter, they were hot and glistening and – gone. They were all gone. I’m glad we didn’t share. The sauce wasn’t overly sweet and it took real restraint not to dip my finger into the little that was left.

The atmosphere was bright and buzzy but not so loud we couldn’t conduct a conversation; once we escaped the chaotic knot of bodies by the door we had a really enjoyable night. My housemate, who’s eaten plenty of Mexican food in the US and had high expectations, was very happy indeed with her burrito and I’d certainly be keen to come back and explore the street food section of the menu in greater depth. Our bill came to £55 not including service which seemed reasonable considering we both hit the cocktails.

Wahaca, 66 Chandos Place, London, U.K. - 020 7240 1883

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