Part.Ⅰ: Staff Shortage is the Biggest Threat to London’s F&B Industry
Mexican Restaurant KOL That Doesn’t Use Avocado
Santiago Lastra at KOL, the only Michelin-starred Mexican restaurant in Europe, is a Mexican chef who has travelled extensively in Europe to gain culinary experience in haute cuisine, including Paris and Mugaritz in northern Spain. He was later offered a position at Copenhagen’s prestigious Nordic Food Lab on a project titled “the secret of the tortilla”, where he created tortillas with local Scandinavian grains. In 2017, he was invited to launch NOMA Mexico as project manager, during which time he delved into the essence of Mexican cuisine. When the project ended, Santiago moved to London and dedicated his time to gathering inspiration for his debut restaurant KOL.
Young and friendly, Santiago Lastra is always congenial and pleasant to talk to. The restaurant features an open kitchen with a vibrant yet upscale feel. There are opinions where Mexican food is not associated with the fine-diningrealm, but KOL is a whole new experience.
The starting amuse bouche was a Mexican street food, made with masa dough which would float like a small boat after drying, hence the name “chalupa” (little boat). Mini-sized chalupa was topped with Cornish crab meat and diced enoki mushrooms, seasoned with Scotch bonnet pepper and mixed with marinated crab mousse and nutty pistachio mole. A vital and refreshing start.
Santiago says he wants to use more local ingredients in his cooking. Soon after Mexico’s multibillion-dollar avocado industry became something even more profitable than marijuana, it has attracted the interest of drug cartels. Initially they made legal profits by taking up local farms, but in recent years they have begun to take deeper control ofthe avocado market through unscrupulous means. Santiago wants to raise public awareness on this issue by using pistachio instead of avocado. “Pistachios are green, fatty nuts that have all the notes of avocado,” he said.
Nicoatole is a traditional Oaxacan dessert made from ground maize and sugar. The home-cooking version is usually flavoured with coconut, pineapple, mango and other seasonal fruits. KOL’s version is both savoury and sweet, using ground maize and roasted yellow peppers, slathered with French sour cream and topped with British caviar. It looked as beautiful as it was harmoniously textured and balanced.
This was followed by raspado, which is a refreshing Mexican snack made with shaved ice and drizzled with various syrups. KOL’s version was savoury, featuring confit Scottish scallops, sunflower seed mole and golden beetroots covered in shaved ice. It was icy, funky and breezy.
Santiago Lastra said: “The food here represents Mexican culture and is prepared using British ingredients.” His favourite dish on the menu originates from his love for Scotland. Made in northwest Mexico using mashed beans, salsa and tortilla, the langoustine taco uses Scottish langoustine cooked with sour berries and sea buckthorn, a wild, spiny fruit that grows on sand dunes along the coasts of the UK, and served with pickled onions. Lime was replaced by fermented gooseberries and aged black tea kombucha, but the result had a bright, zesty sour flavour, exuding Mexican soul but all with British elements.
Oaxaca is famously known as the Land of the Seven Moles, the most popular one being the sweet-savoury, smoky black mole. Somewhere between red and black in colour, coloradito shares the base ingredients of spices, onions, garlic and chocolate and features mashed ripe plantain as a secret ingredient for thickening and sweetening. KOL’s coloradito was made from fermented blackcurrants and 25 spices, served with dried roasted purple carrots that have been fermented for three and a half weeks and warm tortilla. Next up was halibut cooked in corn husk with fennel seeds and roasted succulents.
The main course Carnitas (literally “little meats”) was a classic Mexican dish – confit pork cheek with cabbage leaves, gooseberry salsa and black bean puree. The pork was served in fresh tortillas with crispy pork skin and aromatic herbs for a satisfying mouthfeel. The dish was both elegant and delicious, providing for decadent carbohydrates and fatsthat we all crave from time to time. The tortillas were placed in a specially designed wrapper to keep them warm throughout the dining process.
The pre-dessert was a pineapple weed, cucumber, strawberry and Mezcal sorbet. The dessert was a tamal: a home-made version would be a corn-based starchy dough mixed with lard or shredded chicken and steamed in corn husk. It can be eaten on its own or with a dipping sauce made from boiled red beans. KOL’s version was a caramelised brown butter corn cake wrapped in corn husk and served with buttermilk, strawberry and bee pollen. It reminded me of Chinese “zongzi”, a festive snack made with sticky rice combined with sweet or savoury fillings wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves.
The stylish, bold restaurant proves a unique and elegant combination of Mexican culture and top-drawer ingredients from around the British Isles. I wouldn’t agree with using NOMA Mexico to describe KOL’s cuisine as they share different concept and style, but it’s true that Rene Redzepi has had a strong influence on the new generation of chefs. The likelihood for KOL to enter World’s 50 Best next year is high, and it will only get harder to get a reservation by then.
Lyle’s: Modern British Cuisine with Breeziness
There are many other restaurants in London that are worth visiting, including Lyle’s, a Michelin-starred modern British cuisine restaurant. Chef James Lowe was the Head Chef at St. John Bread & Wine, famous for “nose to tail eating” and where he spent four years before he started a collective with the goal of creating a platform for chefs to promote a new approach to British cooking with a focus on small producers and collaboration.
Opened in 2014 with the inspiration to showcase the possibilities of cooking with British ingredients, Lyle’s was awarded a Michelin star 18 months after opening and in 2018 it was ranked among the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Some food critics comment Lyle’s as being a good restaurant but is overrated to be on the World’s 50 Best list.
Lyle’s may not be the trendiest of restaurants, but the food is cooked with solid skills. We ordered pork aspic with apricot mustard sauce for lunch. The bread was piled on the open kitchen counter and it was my favourite version in London, aromatic, crispy and full of moisture inside. The daily-made butter made it even more unforgettable.
Other dishes such as fresh sea snails with butter mayonnaise, halibut with butter sauce were also cooked perfectly, and a seasonal soup of borlotti beans with fried courgette and fresh garlic brought out the sweetness of the vegetables. The dishes were deceptively simple but were cooked with expert techniques and thoughtfully chosen ingredients, intimate and soothing as if tasting a homecooked meal prepared by the chef for his own family. Visitors to London may tend to try restaurants more British like St. John, but Lyle’s is a much lighter and elevated version which I would probably visit once or twice a month if I lived in London.
Another of my favourites, the three-starred Core by Clare Smyth, was an elegant, delicious place to dine in with a touch of warmth and comfort. The emphasis on natural, sustainable, whole foods is also in line with the world trend. Of course, a visit to the Ritz Restaurantwith Andy Hayler, a fine-dining critic who has been to every three Michelin-starred restaurant in the world, is also on my wish list.
Staff Shortage Still Haunts Restaurant Industry
London’s many foreign hospitality workers had to leave the UK as the restaurant industry faced intermittent shut-down policy during the initial phase of the pandemic. What’s more, many were unable to return to the UK due to visa issues caused by Brexit. As a result, restaurants are generally experiencing a shortage of staff.
The shortage of workers has also occurred in other sectors. During the peak travel season, airports lacking staff suffer serious baggage jams when it takes days to get your luggage after landing. The problem is unlikely to be solved soon, and those wishing to travel to London are advised to bring extra clothes in hand luggage.
Despite the staff shortages, London is still a diverse and fascinating city with vibrant restaurant industry. Booking restaurants in advance would set you off on a well-deserved trip to unplug and enjoy.
Photo: Jocelyn 华姐/instagram