London: December 2020
In front of our favourite Italian restaurant in Marylebone, London (Locanda Locatelli), a new restaurant has opened: KOL. The earthy autumnal colours of the venue and its open kitchen in the middle of the dining room, which brings the action closer to the customers, create a warm and comforting ambiance.
Here, the chef Santiago Lastra showcases Mexican flavours and techniques while employing British fresh produce. Instead of importing limes or avocados, Lastra proposes smart substitutions such as fermented gooseberries or pistachios. Dried and non-perishable goods such as chiles, chocolate or corn are sourced from Mexico though. In fact, masa for tortillas or tamales is made inhouse. Corn is imported, nixtamalised and milled by KOL. This is the type of influence that Lastra has brought himself from his experience in Noma. A focus on community and the respect for producers, farmers, craftsmen. Despite the kind of expectations that mentioning Noma might bring up, KOL delivers authentic and comforting food. We felt that the tasting menu is not designed to surprise, but to make you happy.
The 6 course menu costs £70 pounds. The cocktails menu looked very good at first glance. We were tempted to try their house Margarita and Carajillo. Both drinks were made with very good quality spirits. The proportions in Margarita were balanced and the use of Yuzu liqueur added a nice refreshing part. The distinctive flavour of Carajillo was a subtle aroma of coffee which was achieved by the use of Cascara. We are always very sceptical when it comes to any coffee based food/drinks but in this case, the Cascara is a great way to get a coffee flavour without compromising on the quality of the coffee. The Cascara is neither a coffee nor a tea, it is made from dried husks of the coffee cherry. When it is brewed, the Cascara yields a light, tea-like liquid with soft aromas of coffee. Very good cocktails, complex and well thought through. The wine list is surprisingly modern and refreshing. A great selection of Central European wines from Germany Austria, Czechia, Slovakia, many of them natural or of low intervention. The Tschida TNT and the Enderle & Moll Liaison. If new to Mexican cuisine, the tasting menu can provide a good introduction to its gastronomy. Mexico’s diverse geography offers a wonderful range of traditional dishes and flavours to discover. We recommend checking out KOL’s website for a brief summary of its regional cuisine.
Shortly after ordering, we are presented with a crab chilpachole with mezcal, a crab soup traditional in Veracruz, rich, spicy, perfumed with chiles and with an intense shellfish taste.
Our second appetizer was an Enoki and Cornish crab chalupa, with pistachio mole and fermented gooseberries. It consisted of a deep fried corn tortilla formed in the shape of a boat (in Spanish: chalupa), resembling a tostada. This was filled with a delicate salad of a crab and enoki mushrooms, which is placed on the top of pistachio mole and fermented gooseberries. It just melts in your mouth, the combination of flavours is beautifully balanced. We were particularly surprised by the taste of the pistachio mole. Almost indistinguishable from a regular guacamole (perhaps even slightly better!)
For the first starter Lastra surprises us with his own vegetarian version of Aguachile: Kohlrabi, pink mole, pumpkin, scotch bonnet (peppers), smoked beetroot. Crunchy kohlrabi arranged in a beautiful way, covers an aromatic pink mole and small cubes of the smoked beetroot. Traditionally, aguachile is a dish similar to ceviche typical to the region of Bajío which consists of raw shrimps submerged in a lime juice with chiles and served with raw cucumber and fresh herbs. This was probably the most ‘experimental’ dish on the tasting menu. The head chef plays on the vegetal textures and achieves an interesting combination of flavours with a delicate citrus aftertaste. The peanut sauce completes the whole dish by adding a layer of spice to this vegetarian aguachile.
The next starter that arrived at our table was a langoustine taco with a very thin flour sourdough tortilla, condimented with a smoked chili sauce and topped with sea buckthorn. The heads of langoustines are served on the side, and the guests are supposed to squeeze the juices on the top of the taco. These juices are akin to the lobster tomalley which is a ‘lobster concentrate’ and it is regarded as a delicacy. The tomalley highlights the flavour of the langoustine and reminds us of the flavours that Jeremy Chan develops in Ikoyi’s seafood: spicy and umami. Deliciously balanced flavours.
The third starter took us to the Caribbean coasts of Mexico, a pipián with wild mushrooms, pumpkin seeds, fennel and roasted succulents. Pipián is a green mole based primarily on pumpkins seeds. Fresh and nutty, it complemented well a selection of sautéed seasonal oyster mushrooms and winter chanterelles.
For the mains, Lastra proposes a DIY taco assembly experience. Seafood is served with condiments, garnishes, salads and their fresh tortillas. We opted to add an extra main to our six-course menu which the chef brought to the table himself. This consisted of a grilled de-shelled lobster, bone marrow emulsion, puréed beans and fermented cabbage. In a pouch, to serve as tortillero, came in 4 orange flour tortillas made using the tomalley of the lobster. An excellent idea to layer in more flavour. We were particularly impressed by the pairing of lobster and bone marrow. It enhances the seafood flavours with balance. A mar y montaña that would make Ferrán Adrià proud. Lastly, the spicy bean purée complimented well the richness of bone marrow and the fermented cabbage brought a hint of freshness to the dish. Well done!
The second “taco” main was grilled octopus, roasted bone marrow and Jerusalem artichokes. The customers are invited to slice the perfectly cooked tentacles with some scissors over corn tortillas and top it with a scoop of bone marrow. The mar y montaña hits the spot here too. The topinambur, soft and nutty, adds buttery mellowness. And, a decent tortilla, very thin and malleable assembles the package. There is nothing better than a freshly baked corn tortilla and theirs was probably the best that we have tried so far. We wonder if the secret does indeed lie in controlling the process from grain to comal.
No meal would be complete without a dessert. As a last dish, we were served chocolate and corn tamales. Traditionally, the tamales are savoury and consist of a masa harina dough and some kind of meat, wrapped in a corn husk and then steamed. Lastra presents his sweet version of tamales accompanied with corn husk infused ice cream and sea buckthorn. The steam cake was sticky and viscous, and the combination of chocolate and corn just works perfectly with the ice cream.
The selection of crockery and cutlery, which beautifully match the design of the place, deserves a special recognition. Rustic, modern and very elegant. That was a charming addition to the whole experience.