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Jimi Famurewa reviews Rita’s: All killer, no filler diner speaks its own magical culinary language

·4-min read
Full-scale brilliance: The new opening marks a fascinating coming of age for founders Gabriel Pryce and Missy Flynn (Matt Writtle)
Full-scale brilliance: The new opening marks a fascinating coming of age for founders Gabriel Pryce and Missy Flynn (Matt Writtle)

There are times in this job when you can set the scene on a new restaurant a little; times when there is room to light a figurative scented candle, pop on some low, contextualising mood music, and patiently tee up exactly what an establishment might have to say about a cuisine, a trend, or our city’s perennially Covid-battered dining landscape.

But then, every now and again, there are those places that blaze with the full-scale brilliance of the new Rita’s in Soho. And in those instances — when everything, from the first zingy gulp of margarita to the spiced, butter-pooled bowl of grits, is of such high quality — you really just need to get on with it.

Is it notable that this Americas-influenced former Dalston pop-up has pitched up in the West End? It is. Does it mark a fascinating coming of age for the concept’s founders, chef Gabriel Pryce and front of house/drinks expert Missy Flynn? It really does.

But, truly, the best way to understand this place is to linger on as much of its all-killer-no-filler menu as possible. So, yes. Let us mostly skip the pleasantries and dive headlong into what is, at last gasp, undoubtedly one of my meals of the year.

Outrageous Grinch-green quiff: Garlic bread topped with herbed butter (Matt Writtle)
Outrageous Grinch-green quiff: Garlic bread topped with herbed butter (Matt Writtle)

It began with the jalapeño popper gildas. A Basque-inspired bar snack, here they are reborn as an ingenious miniature of skewered jalapeño, anchovy and blue cheese-stuffed olive, dribbled in housemade chilli oil, and thundering across the palate in a hot-salty riot. If it is a party in the mouth, then it is the sort where the police have to be called. Hot bean devilled egg (a long-standing Rita’s trademark) delivered a similar rolling wave of heat and umami. And then, the tear and share garlic bread came along to form an unholy snack trinity: a warm, golden puff of burnished dough, feather-light within, and crowned by an outrageous Grinch-green quiff of melting herbed butter.

The comfort, cultural promiscuity and detonative flavour intensity of all this will, of course, be familiar to those that have been stanning Pryce and Flynn from their first residency in 2012 right through to hit sandwich spin-off Bodega Rita’s. But if this Soho opening marks a maturation — and the little 34-cover room, with its restrained, mostly bare white walls, high, steel-accented tables and flowers sprouting from wine bottle vases, would suggest as much — then it is most evident in the larger dishes.

Mackerel came crisp and bubbled, heaped with deep-fried strips of tortilla and splayed in a yellow molé with a lingering, fruity tang. The warm borscht (restoratively complex, rigged with jolting pickled berries and bearing a squiggle of dill cream) may be the first time this babushka-core beetroot soup has made any sense to me. And after that came sugar pit pork chop, studiously brined and boasting the seeping, rosy pink lusciousness you’d expect from fillet steak.

Crisp and bubbled: Mackerel with deep-fried strips of tortilla and yellow molé (Matt Writtle)
Crisp and bubbled: Mackerel with deep-fried strips of tortilla and yellow molé (Matt Writtle)

Were there any missteps? Well, the meat at the centre of our duck carnitas taquitos — essentially, messily accessorised, deep-fried tortilla cigars — struggled to assert itself. And, I suppose, the chest-beating, smoky richness of a Oaxacan affogato (a scoop of dark chocolate Hackney Gelato, espresso and a generous measure of mezcal) struck me as a touch overwhelming. But these are the sort of issues you have to strain to discern amid what is, ultimately, a restaurant speaking its own distinctive culinary argot with a kind of magical, flow-state confidence.

We finished with a finely constructed, almost luminously green key lime pie, skipped out from the thrumming room into the crisp night, and looked in on the bustling glow of Andrew Edmunds; across the road and still packing them in 35 long years later. It is the sort of institution you imagine Pryce and Flynn dream of emulating in the months and years to come. Soho’s dining past may be set and its future is perilously unknown. But now, thanks to Rita’s, its present sparkles with creativity, cool, and the sort of memorable deliciousness to see us all through a long, uncertain winter.

49 Lexington Street, W1F 9AP. Meal for two plus drinks about £140. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 5.30pm to midnight; ritasdining.com

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