Globe-trotting ex-Palomar chef needs to settle down
Fusion food is one of those misguided and blingtastically tacky relics of the 1980s that should’ve died long ago along with shoulder pads, the New Romantics and Thatcherism. Foley’s doesn’t serve fusion food, strictly speaking, but its menu does swagger across the globe pulling in ingredients and techniques from the Americas to south eastern Asia and the Middle East.
This isn’t entirely surprising as the head chef is apparently a veteran of The Palomar, which also ranges wide in its influences but still tends to limit its remit to the Middle East and the Maghreb. The food, as we’ll soon see, has its problems, but this is a restaurant review and not just a food review. The service, to put it kindly, can be highly variable. It can be slow and non-existent. Or it can be excessively chatty and matey. If you’re lucky, it’ll be harried and laconic, but still generally efficient. The front of house helps set the tone for a restaurant and Foley’s tone is all over the place.
Then there’s comfort. Don’t let the staff seat you at the oddly elevated stool-like table for two on the far right of the ground floor dining room. It was so painfully uncomfortable that the CIA are probably studying it right now for their ‘enhanced interrogations’. The rest of the ground floor seating is generally fine, but be wary of being seated downstairs at the bar surrounding the small kitchen. Although it gives you a good view, the lack of ventilation is oppressive, especially at the height of the London summer, and the throbbingly loud music is grating (although to be fair, this can also be a problem at The Palomar).
All of these problems are fixable, of course, but then there’s the food which is a whole other mixed bag in of itself.
First things first
Ceviche tacos use endive leaves rather than tortillas as wrappers, a trick borrowed from south east Asia and modified. Regardless, this mash-up of two Mexican classics was an unbalanced affair. The anonymised tuna and octopus segments ended up providing texture rather than taste, as they were buried underneath a heap of accompaniments. The coconut miso sauce did provide a good hit of umami, while the peanuts were crunchy and nutty. Even so, this feels like a waste of seafood.
Although not especially buttery or smoky, the halved aubergine was at least fleshy. Despite its already one-dimensional nature, the aubergine could still have been the basis of a good eggplant dish. The lightly spiced yoghurt, gently sweet dates and tart, crunchy pomegranate were a good start. But then the kitchen also piled on a heap of tame feta and oddly crisp and chewy fried quinoa. The result was an overwhelming mish mash of disparate elements, some good and some bad, none of which gelled together in the end.
The intriguingly named ‘Cornflake-crusted popcorn chicken’ was a much less exotic saddle of chicken in the flesh. A hefty hunk of moist and fatty coiled meat was wrapped in crisp fried chicken skin and then topped with plenty of sweetcorn and tart, supple and taut shimeji. I was highly sceptical at first, but this dish was hugely enjoyable in the end – even with the tame chorizo.
Umami was the overriding sensation with the nori-wrapped tuna. Not just from the nori lining the raw tuna medallions, but also from the supple, slippery seaweed. Plenty of firm edamame, slippery shiitake and sweet, tart and crisp julienned pear made up the supporting cast. This odd dish was a peculiar take on Japanese food where complexity is the order of the day, rather than simplicity, and the fish isn’t the star, but plays a supporting textural role instead. Even so, this dish was still enjoyable enough on its own terms.
A fluffy cardamom-flavoured soft cheese ball, somewhat like creme fraiche, was the star of the deconstructed baklava cheesecake. The stodgy, chewy, almost hard pastry was not only shamefully bad and undeserving of top billing, but it wouldn’t pass muster in Turkey either.
Going back for seconds
Chicken ‘burnt ends‘ were no such thing, but these tender and moist poultry chunks were still enjoyable anyway. Not only due to the well-grilled nature of the chicken, but also because of the tangy, moreish sauce that they came in – even if they didn’t really resemble their Korean-style billing.
Cauliflower florets were a bit too soft and bland, leaving it to umami tomatoes, nutty tahini and crunchy, smoky peanuts to pick up the slack in this vegetarian dish.
Tender beef short rib meat (served off the bone – and I’m moderately certain it was short rib beef) was tender, gently meaty and slick with rendered fat. It was surprisingly well-executed, with its relative richness offset by a salad of relatively sharp julienned vegetables, crispy shallots and crunchy nuts. Although billed as a som tam, it was a faint echo of the best examples of that Thai salad and wasn’t quite the fine accompaniment that the beef deserved.
Grilled octopus was a bit too soft, so it ended up serving as a subpar conduit for the distinctly sesame-flavoured mayo and the moderately spicy sriracha. The spicy pork mince tasted, quite oddly, more like a Chinese-style prawn paste with its fishy, salty, spicy, umami tang. Its punchiness compensated for the flaccid octopus.
It should come as no surprise that the Fatboy Elvis is a generally American-inspired dessert – or at least inspired by the image of American food in the popular imagination. Squares of cake with a nutty, chocolate-coffee-ish flavour was neatly complimented by a banana cream. It was true to the fruit, tangy sharp and sweet, as was the strawberry jam. Bits of salty and moreish candied bacon were surprisingly complimentary to the sweetness and sharpness of the more traditional non-savoury parts of this dessert, making for a well-rounded whole.
Light and oil-free sweet potato cakes didn’t just rely on their innate sweetness to charm me over – it was also infused with saffron and cumin which blended surprisingly well with the garnishes of sharp red onions and lightly sweet and sharp grilled pineapple.
A varied selection of supple and wrinkly greens came dressed with crunchy pistachio and sweet, sharp orange. The feta was neither here nor there though, and the sparse quinoa left me similarly unmoved. It’s not a bad salad, but it’s not a great one either.
Mildly earthy and dense cubes of lamb weren’t the best of bits of baby sheep I’ve ever had, but they were pleasing enough when taken with the nutty, lightly spiced dukkah, sprightly hummus and sweet, tingly peppers. However, oddly crisp, fritter-like cornbread squares and cumin-infused mini cauliflower florets were served alongside the lamb and tended to overwhelm the meat. They’re best taken after the lamb rather than with it – especially the ultimately unpleasantly stodgy fried cornbread.
I’m not sure what was worse – the stodgy, overcooked hake or the oddly crispy, popcorn-esque chickpeas. The tame kale and okra weren’t very impressive either. The best things here were the coconut sauce and a lightly sharp green sauce of indeterminate origin, but these were never going to be enough to rescue the abused fish and weird chickpeas.
Light and creamy coconut-flavoured panna cotta was pleasing and deserved better accompaniments than the oddly frozen, uncomfortably cold and flavourless lychees or the uninspired crumble. The latter did at least have a gentle herby zing, but this was still very much a dessert of two halves.
Go fourth and multiply
Bok choy is more commonly associated with stir-fries than with salads, but that hasn’t stopped Foley’s from including the Chinese leaf in its ‘market salad’. The leaf and stems turned out to be surprisingly peppery, refreshing and free from the excess oil that often bedevils stir-fried bok choy. The stems and bulbs of the vegetable were quite chewy though, which was an odd sensation. As usual, Foley’s kitchen insisted on dumping in a whole truckload of other elements – sweet and crisp chunks of apple, crunchy nuts, mung bean sprouts and buttermilk. The sheer mass of everything made for a very filling salad, but the melange of flavours and textures came across as muddled with no clear centre or focus.
The tender pork belly turned out to be surprisingly fat-free. This might be welcome if you’re an anhedonic killjoy, but fat is one of the things that distinguishes pork belly from other cuts of pig. Although the tamarind marinade was pleasingly sweet, peppery and musky, it also hid the character of the pork – so much so, that it could almost have been any other meat. Even so, the marinade crescendoed into a mild, cumulative chilli heat which was neatly counteracted by the reasonably refreshing strands of julienned green papaya. Crunchy nuts made a repeat appearance, adding another layer of texture. It’s a peculiar meat dish where the sauce is the star, rather than the meat itself.
Foley’s isn’t a bad restaurant. There’s no way it could be, when its kitchen is capable of knocking out such bold, punchy and uncompromising flavours. But that doesn’t mean it’s great. Even if you put aside the problems surrounding service, comfort and atmosphere, the kitchen’s tendency to dump a multitude of elements onto a plate often lead to a confused, aimless mess. If this kitchen sink approach didn’t obscure the qualities of the meat, fish or vegetables on the plate, then the ham-fisted bludgeon-like cooking did instead.
There is some joy to be had at Foley’s, but it felt like hard work rather than a good time. It’s very much a second-rate fallback option when you can’t get in anywhere better.
What to order: Cornflake chicken; Nori wrapped tuna; Chicken ‘burnt ends’; Sticky beef; Fatboy Elvis
What to skip: Baklava cheesecake
Address: 23 Foley Street, Fitzrovia, London W1W 6DU
Phone: 0203 137 1302
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday noon-23.30; closed Sunday.
Reservations: essential for dinner; probably a good idea for lunch
Average cost for one person including soft drinks and service charge: £40-50 approx. (a light lunch will cost around £25)
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