Bargain seafood in the West End – hallelujah!
Update 12/3/15 – added extra tuna steak photo
Seafood in London has a reputation for being expensive, but Rex and Mariano shows that it doesn’t have be like that. Created by some of the masterminds behind Burger and Lobster, Rex and Mariano uses a couple of sneaky tricks to keep the bill low. The vast majority of the menu consists of dishes that are either raw or simply grilled without any fancy preparation or sauces. Plus, you place your order on iPads with the food brought to you by non-virtual human beings. You use the iPads to ask for the bill too, but don’t try to be clever and turn off the iPad as Templeton Peck did – that requires human intervention to unlock and reauthorise the tablet.
All of this helps your meal go as quickly and smoothly as possible – food arrives very quickly after being ordered, so it’s best not to order too generously lest your table become too overcrowded. Indeed, the app will often stop accepting new dishes and passively-aggressively suggest that you place your order as is.
Faster table turnarounds means more bums on seats, resulting in higher volumes of seafood served and thus the cost per unit of fish flesh goes down too. The one snag is people – specifically other customers. Despite having reserved a table for myself, Templeton Peck, Vicious Alabaster, Resume and Snaggletooth, we still had to wait half an hour at the bar to wait for the slow-drinking middle class chatterboxes at one of three potential tables to drink up and sod off. Balancing the need to turn tables without making people feel rushed and unwelcome is a tricky business. Clearly, the walking flesh-and-blood iPads at Rex and Mariano still have work to do in this regard.
The menu at Rex and Mariano has an Italian flavour to it. One of the most obvious examples is the seafood-less starter of burrata. Although not a caprese-style burrata with a cold, liquid interior, it was still a joy to tear apart with the creamy, elastic mozzarella complimented nicely by the umami tomatoes.
Although the red prawns here weren’t quite as spectacular as those available at Il Sanlorenzo in Rome, they were still very fine indeed. Fresh, delicate, quivering little crustaceans with a lightly zesty and zingy smack to them. If you don’t suck out the salty cranial matter from the heads, then I don’t want to know you.
Guzzling native oysters during oyster season is a distinct pleasure. Unless you’re Resume that is. Her dislike of them is almost enough to earn her a temporary disbarment as one of my dining companions. In any case the Scottish oysters here were silky, meaty and relatively plump while their juices imparted a slight briny saltiness. Although I couldn’t convince Resume to open her mind and her mouth, Snaggletooth was much more compliant. As an oyster virgin, his mind was blown by their evocative flavour – ‘it’s the seaside in my mouth!’ Bless.
The tuna carpaccio was more like a tuna crudo – the individual chunks of tuna were far thicker and looser than any carpaccio I’ve had before. Although meaty, the tuna was dressed in a forgettable brine that failed to either enhance or compliment the chunks of fish.
Far more impressive, surprisingly, was the lobster ceviche. The cooked lobster meat was firm, fresh and had a zesty orange tang to it. Although every restaurant in London seemingly has their own rubbish take on ceviche, this is one of the few genuinely worth having – even if it’s about as Peruvian as Paddington Bear. The sea bass ceviche wasn’t quite as show-stopping, but the firm, meaty slivers of fish and zesty dressing were still pleasing.
Resume the Oyster Dodger insisted on ordering the tuna steak which turned out better than I expected. The meaty fillet was cooked just so, avoiding the hard stodginess that often afflicts tuna steaks elsewhere.
The ‘triple cooked’ chips were far too soft to be truly triple cooked, but they were surprisingly good nonetheless. Golden, evenly cooked on the outside and fluffy on the inside. They were cut from whole chunks of potato too, rather than reconstituted from mush, making them proper chips rather than fries in spite of their thinness.
Curiously, the langoustines arrived as two separate servings – one hot and one cold. I preferred the latter, but no matter the serving temperature everyone agreed that the milky and delicate tail flesh was superb.
The multi-hued fruits in the tomato and bread salad were far too refrigerated for my liking. Many of the tomato segments managed to maintain some semblance of flavour despite this though – from crisp and sweet to soft and umami. There wasn’t quite enough of the addictively crunchy fried bread pieces, but if that means more tomatoes then I can definitely live with that.
The fish of the day on our visit was a whole sea bream stuffed with fennel. The latter added little, but the crisp skin and flaky, milky flesh, especially the tender cheeks, were still a pleasure.
There are only two desserts available at Rex and Mariano and thankfully neither of them were duffers. The lemon sorbet is available with or without limoncello. Even without it, the sorbet still had a punchy zestiness and was thankfully free of large, crunchy ice crystals.
Resume was far too easily impressed by the chocolate mousse, declaring it to be ‘amazing’. Resume’s indulgence in the culture of overpraise aside, the mousse was satisfactorily accomplished. The smooth and bittersweet layers of mousse were topped with a small layer of smooth, sweet chocolate fondant and a dash of crushed pistachios, although there wasn’t quite enough of the latter to leave an impression.
Going back for seconds
Handling langoustines, oysters and chips sounds messy, but conveniently there are large, free-standing communal sinks dotted all over the dining room. Bafflingly though, few people seemed willing to use this sanitary fuss-saver on both of my visits. The Euro Hedgie, Rodan and Gamora accompanied me on this second and final meal.
The native oysters were very similar to the way they were before – plump, meaty and briney, but not quite as zingy and salty as before. Although I liked them, the Euro Hedgie dismissed them out of hand as inferior to those often available at Wright Brothers.
We both enjoyed the red prawns served raw though, which were just as good as they were before. The only slight difference is that they were dressed in a little more oil and salt compared to last time, which helped compensate for the relative lack of zing compared to the very best examples of red prawns.
Although both Rodan and Gamora liked the House Carpaccio selection, neither the Hedgie nor I were impressed with this trio of raw fish. The thin slices of sea bass, tuna and salmon were far too chilled and dressed in an uninteresting and uninspired selection of oils. The mildly buttery salmon was the least worst of the three.
The fish in the seabass tartare was curiously cubed. Its texture was further obscured by the thick, crunchy croutons. The taste of basil was undoubtedly strong, but this hardly made up for the rest of this disappointing fish dish. Far better, if still imperfect, was the seabass ceviche. As before there was little of the promised tiger’s milk marinade, but the crisp red onions and fresh coriander did a good enough job of complimenting the thin slices of firm, meaty bass. There was a hint of citrus, but just a hint. The tuna ceviche was very similar to the seabass version, but with a modest hit of jalapeno-powered spice taking the place of the citrus.
Although the small, bitty clams were unimpressive in of themselves, the lightly piquant and boozy sauce of garlic, chives and white wine more than made up for this failing.
I wasn’t expecting much from the whole fried megrim sole, the fish of the day on our lunchtime visit, but it turned out surprisingly well. The smooth, delicate flesh held the rich taste of the butter that it had been fried in, while a thin, crisp crust provided some variation in texture. The accompanying chips were identical to those from my first meal at Rex and Mariano.
If you need still more fried vegetables, then there are the courgette fries. Although crisp and free from excess oil, each courgette sliver was a little too bland and thin. The accompanying aioli could’ve done with more of a garlicky punch too.
Rex and Mariano isn’t perfect. A lot of the dishes could do with a little more finesse, but there are still some definite corkers here from the red prawns and langoustines to the native oysters and megrim sole. The high quality of much of the fish and seafood is all the more pleasurable given the very reasonable prices – £25-30 per head is simply unheard of in the capital. Rex and Mariano just misses out on a clean sweep Five Star rating, but this restaurant is still a winner. If you love seafood, then you need to eat here.
What to order: Red prawns; fish of the day; native oysters (when in season); langoustines
What to skip: The carpaccios
Name: Rex and Mariano
Address: 2 St Anne’s Court, London W1F 0AZ
Phone: 020 7437 0566
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday noon-22.30; Sunday noon-22.00.
Reservations: highly recommended; essential on or around weekends
Average cost for one person including soft drinks: £25-30 approx.