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Jimi Famurewa reviews the Tent: The secret’s out... but now this cosmic beauty must serve up some surprises

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 9/28/2022 Jimi Famurewa

The clandestine can be an overrated quality when it comes to restaurants. On the one hand, there are places with the effective mysteriousness of, say, Sessions Arts Club. On the other, there are those ersatz speakeasies where the belaboured secrecy of it all — the entry buzzers, the hidden doors and the minimal signage — becomes a sort of self-defeating faff. The more elaborate the veil, ultimately, the more impressed you need to be when it is whipped away.

So let’s start by saying The Tent — a hush-hush new venture from acclaimed Filipino-Australian chef John Javier — utterly succeeds when it comes to intrigue, visual drama, and the kind of transportable, illicit atmosphere that suggests Eyes Wide Shut masks and newly formed throuples disappearing into shadowy corners. Locate its discreet wood-panelled door, head through a little reception area draped in heavy, velvet curtain, and you’ll find yourself stepping into a moonlit fantasy world: glowing planetary orbs dangle from the ceiling, dim table lamps pick out attractive faces hunched in the red-hued half-light; and, up above, a blanketed constellation of pin-prick LEDs gives the impression of a starlit sky glimpsed through faintly Bedouin scraps of canopy.

“Oh, wow,” said my pal Mark, as bossa nova wafted from the speakers and we inched past a vacant drum kit towards our seats. Plainly, the allure of this place as a singularly striking, exclusive den of iniquity cannot be overstated. However, when it came to the actual Levantine-inspired food I was a little more confused. In fact, my main memories of The Tent are of squinting in the gloom at indeterminate dips, skewers and pieces of protein, trying to identify what I was eating. But also, perhaps, straining to see what there was here to fully justify the fuss and hype.

Visual intrigue: a tiger prawn (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd) © Provided by Evening Standard Visual intrigue: a tiger prawn (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

Still, as I say, that early impression was one of wonder, sustained by the first arrivals from the menu. After a perky, Negroni-ish “Koko” aperitif (that the cocktails are named after iconic London clubs raised an early smile) it was straight into a kind of modernist mezze; hummus whipped silky-smooth and doused in a moody layer of (I think) ash and chilli oil; beetroot and labneh borani dip with a lactic sweetness; housemade flatbread, with something strange and beguiling sprinkled on its gorgeously warm folds.

Javier — who has staged at Noma and sealed his international reputation cooking dextrous, playful modern Chinese at Sydney’s Master — has said the food at The Tent was inspired by the Middle Eastern heritage of his business partners (not to mention this place’s basement nightclub and 3am licence). Those dips, alongside skewered, soy-dressed mushrooms with the pleasing, succulent bounce of kidneys, feel like the best expression of Javier balancing his technical prowess with a conscious downshift to something simpler.

My main memories are of squinting in the gloom at indeterminate dips, skewers and pieces of protein, trying to identify what I was eating

But as the later dishes lost some fluency, and the per-item pricing soared, it became harder to divine exactly what the grand plan was. Lamb shish skewers felt a little gristly and mean. Wild tiger prawns were in a sweet, humming baharat spiced glaze but also £24 a pop. Iberico secreto pork schnitzel — a riff on the chicken version that is apparently an Israeli obsession — had surrendered too much of its succulence in the act of being fried. The fact that we didn’t feel sufficiently curious about the baklava to order it probably tells its own story.

It’s a strange one. There’s already industry buzz around Javier’s opening (though I’d counter this by saying it’s easy to create clamour for tables when there aren’t very many). Yet I can’t pretend that I didn’t crave more in the way of culinary consistency, surprise and imagination. Or that I didn’t glance at an early test menu (featuring pickled mackerel dolma and yuzu kosho tabbouleh) and wonder what happened to that distinctive, buccaneering spirit. The Tent has a cosmic, dreamlike interior for the ages. All it needs now, in my view, is food that feels a little less earthbound.

17 Little Portland Street, W1W 8BP. Meal for two plus drinks about £200. Open Wednesday from 7pm-1am, Thursday from 7pm-2am and Friday and Saturday from 7pm-3am; little-portland.com

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