Oxford Street is a hell-hole of tourist traps. You have to venture down the side-streets to come across the good stuff- like Roka, Berners Tavern and Aqua. But these restaurants empty your pockets and are best saved for a special occasion. If you’re after something more informal, there are few better places than Zoilo, just behind Selfridges on Duke Street, a discreet little Argentinian restaurant serving up great small plates and Argentinian wines at decent prices.
Inside it has a very intimate vibe with a main bar counter on both floors to sit up at. Choose the one downstairs as you get to overlook the chefs at work, which is always ideal for a date when you realise you have nothing in common and run out of chat. There’s a good choice of wines by the glass or carafe, which in theory allows you to drink a bit less, but inevitably means you try three times as much. What I loved about tonight was that we weren’t handed a menu and told to order straight away. I’m getting sick of being told what to do in London restaurants. Of being hurried in and out, so that some tosser who can have my table for 10pm (who even eats at that time anyway, a tosser, thats who).
We were invited to order a couple of bar snacks with our first glass of wine. The first was the empanadas- basically the South American equivalent of a pasty. At £3.50 each these are a great little bites. One was filled with braised beef skirt potatoes, onions and olives, the other with chicken, grilled peppers, shallots and cumin and although they could have been bigger with their flavours, they were still delicious. The pig’s head croquettes (£5.95) were a little small for their price, and didn’t have the strong piggy flavour I was hoping for. But that quince jam made up for it.
We then moved onto the main menu, starting off with Scallops, sweet potato, caramelised pork belly and chorizo (£9.25). Of course all of these ingredients are classic combinations, but it still takes a lot 0f skill to execute the dish perfectly. It’s all a balancing act, as with the big salty hit from the chorizo and pork belly, there’s always that risk that you overpower the scallops. But they nailed it, and to make it even better there was several different textures involved making it a real pleasure to eat. The only complaint was that the scallops were tiny. Big juicy ones would have been fairer for this price. But you can’t win them all.
Next was the“Chimichurri” burger with provolone cheese, grilled tomato, caramelised onions, pickles and aioli (£6.95). Just reading that makes me want it again. These ingredients inside a bun can’t help but taste great. And with a perfectly juicy beef patty this was a really solid burger. Considerably better than some of the trash I’ve been served up at burger joints recently.
Then there was a white asparagus salad (£7.50)with a cheese souffle in the middle that was unusual but absoloutely brilliant.
Another hit was the warm octopus and mussel salad (around £7) that had picked up a good char from the grill. It was served with broad beans and a tangy green sauce. With it we got the classic chips “provenzal” £3.95 – these might just be some of the best chips around. Finally a restaurant that doesn’t bottle it with the garlic. These were absolutely laced with the stuff. If you’re on a date and order them you can write off any action later.
The food continued to please with desserts- the milk cake came with a refreshing passion fruit sorbet and the flaked almonds and biscuit gave it a bit of texture. The dulce de leche crème brûlée with a dollop of caramel ice cream speaks for itself.
There’s a lot to love about this restaurant. The food is intriguing and comforting at the same time. It could possibly be a bit bolder with some of its flavours to give some dishes more of a punch, but there wasn’t any dish that we didn’t love. The food tastes like it’s been made by the chef. Of course all restaurant food does or should, but I mean you don’t feel like this has been churned out in some huge kitchen by just any chef. There’s something personal and homemade to this cooking, like it’s food the chef has been brought up on. Even in the way the food was plated up, it felt like there wasn’t always a set way of doing things, like there is a passion and creative freedom in the kitchen. For me this is the best type of cooking.
The staff were effortlessly charming and with great wine as well, it’s hard not to enjoy yourself here. It has a similar vibe to Polpo and Morito, but it’s just much more laid back. There isn’t a queue of people hovering behind you, waiting for your chair. The bill came to £135 which was a bit of a surprise, but a bottle and a half of wine and lots of dishes. This always tends to be the case with small plates. It all seems so cheap and then you go and order everything on the menu. Still though it was well worth the price, not necessarily for groundbreaking food, but just for solid cooking and a throlougly relaxing and enjoyable meal. It might only be a couple of streets away from the hussle of thousands of shoppers, but you’d struggle to find a more intimate little restaurant in central London.
9 Duke St, London W1U 3EG