I've worked in Soho, or the proximity of Soho for over ten years now (good god, that makes me feel old) and I can count on one hand the number of times I've been to the site that Rex & Mariano now occupies on St. Anne's Court. A vast behemoth of a place tucked down this alleyway that joins Wardour Street to Dean Street, it was, for many years, Vodka Revolution. Nothing good happens in Vodka Revolution. It's the type of bar, in my experience, that is dark, dank, loud and full of grabby lecherous men. They used to sell flavoured vodka shots that you would optimistically suck back, your subconscious hoping beyond all hope that you would get pissed enough to induce a memory black-out of ever having been in such a place.
But now it's all joyfulness and light. Gone is the dark, and in its place light pine furniture, white marble-topped tables and a huge gleaming kitchen. There's banquettes, there's bar seating, and also standalone tables - truly something for everyone. From the same stable as Goodman, Burger & Lobster and Beast, Rex is Rex Goldsmith, Chelsea's fishmonger, while Mariano looks after the wine list side of things.
The menu is, indeed, very fishy. It's also presented to you not only as a paper menu, but also on an iPad. The first time I visited in December I thought perhaps that would be a worthless gimmick but I am now a total convert. All the items are listed for you to order with gay abandon, and an alert will tell you when you've ordered quite a lot and perhaps maybe you'd like to order more a little later so that it doesn't all come at once? There are humans available to guide you if it's your first time and also deliver the food, but I loved the efficiency of the electronic ordering and the subsequent 5% standard service charge. There are some who will bemoan the coldness of a dining experience without human interaction, but that's what your lunch companion is for.
Anyway, the food. The food! The raw red prawns (opening picture) will be served to you cooked if you so choose. They are specialities of Sicily, and they are the sweetest, prawniest little things. Already de-shelled for your eating ease, they are dressed liberally with olive oil and salt. Some find the raw versions a little slimy but that's why I like them - they're slippery and sweet. Suck the heads of the prawns for an extra prawny hit (I imagine some of you might be retching a little at the thought but do try it. Prawn brains!) At £10 for 8 of the highest quality seafood, it really is a bargain.
Lobster ceviche (£12) I am not sure is a ceviche in the truest sense of it being cured in a citrus juice, but it certainly is very lightly cooked, tossed with lemon and the unmistakable fragrance of yuzu, a type of Japanese citrus fruit. It's hard to describe what yuzu tastes of, except for absolutely delicious. Along with shaved fennel and chives, this is what summer flavours are made of.
Tuna ceviche is true to form and has the unmistakable heat flavour of jalapeno, addictive and punchy. Salmon carpaccio with tomato and olive oil was something I had at my original visit in December, and I found it a little dull when compared with the exciting flavours that preceded it.
Onto the cooked. There's usually a daily fish on offer, grilled simply and served with chips but these clams with white wine, chilli and parsley are unmissable. On my first visit (which was also their first day open) the clams were deliciously garlicky but also borderline too salty - this has now calmed down a lot. We used empty shells to slurp up the delicious sauce.
Courgette fries have surpassed Byron's as my favourite side in London. Served with an aioli that is mercifully mild on the garlic flavour (look, no one wants a colleague returning from lunch honking of garlic) they are crisp, bronzed and utterly irresistible.
Olives are stuffed with yellowfin tuna, dusted lightly and deep fried. I've had versions of these stuffed with anchovies which are a bit too much for me - a literal salt bomb - so these tuna versions pleased me greatly, as they have just the right side of fishiness.
Nothing will ever sway me from my most favoured preparation of deep fried seafood, which is the classic Cantonese salt and pepper (yup, you guessed it - there's a book plug - I have a recipe for it in Chinatown Kitchen!) but this frito misto with Old Bay seasoning is a decent alternative. Old Bay seasoning is used for crab and crawfish boils, made up of rich, warm spices. We were pretty big on squid on this plate - a couple more whitebait would have balanced it out well, but for £9 it was a good portion.
That's another thing. Price. While Goodman is expensive - quality meat doesn't come cheap - they've brought lobster to the masses, for £20 at Burger & Lobster. Beast blows the budget with the food coming in at £75 per head - certainly, it is 'exclusive' as their website advertises. That king crab aint cheap. Rex & Mariano though is a total bargain. If you look at the price of seafood at the fishmongers you'll know it's not a cheap foodstuff; at Rex & Mariano, those prices are barely inflated.
2 St. Anne's Court
London W1F 0AZ
Tel: 020 7437 0566