Papi, 1F, 373 Mentmore Terrace, London E8 3DQ
Papi: The wings make everything OK again
A collaborative review by Sam Wilson and Meg Houghton Gilmour
Fine, I’ll admit it — aversion to the sun cost me dearly last summer. Not because of all the pints, cocktails and “fun times” WhatsApp groups said I’d “missed” because I know that’s all bollocks. What I’d actually missed out on was Hot4U, knocking out dishes that had me zooming in on the photos and grunting like a pervert. The old ‘nose-to-tail’ approach suddenly leapt into technicolour with their bold, irreverent takes born of the dreamy union of talent and a sense of humour. All thanks to Matthew Scott and Eddy Tejada.
Matthew has since found Charlie Carr, owner of Wingnut Wines and, following a hugely successful GoFundMe campaign reminiscent of the Alan Partridge fever dream in which he’s gyrating for a second series, they opened Papi in Hackney.
Traces of Hot4U’s pop-up legacy resurface throughout the menu like a narcotic flashback. But there’s a sense of maturation, augmented by an ever-changing selection of, in their view, unappreciated wines. The walking wine list waxes majestic about his stock like a proud parent and you could describe him with a similar lexicon — unfiltered, natural, on the nose.
In any other establishment, the presence of a ‘Lagerita’ on the menu would have us turning on our heels and heading straight for the door. Meg points out that you’d be a fool to try and improve a perfect cocktail, especially by diluting it with lager. Lager, for God’s sake. She was right. But far from the abomination expected it was perfectly drinkable.
Oysters come blotted with BBQ strawberry vinegar and are oddly tame, meanwhile the plate of Brighton's Curing Rebels' Pirata loin with melon claws some of the energy back. Sootily vignetted and capped with plenty of ivory fat but unfortunately, the sheer amount of finishing oil used detracts. But the melon is the star; the edible rind transforms the fruit entirely, as if Whole Foods did Tangfastics.
But it’s the chicken wings that commanded our attention and continue to retain it even now, weeks later. None of us had ever had a stuffed chicken wing and now every other wing pales in comparison. If I knew my arm was to be deboned and stuffed with delicate smoked eel, Panko’d and deep-fried to perfection, I would certainly consider it an improvement. Sadly, the chicken in question will never know this, but I hope they had at least some sense they were destined for such greatness. Greatness so profound Meg ordered a second portion to herself, instead of dessert. A peepshow of that Hot4U electricity—such skill and ingenuity are almost being used solely for their own amusement.
The pine nut-studded beef tartare snowed with Montgomery and bulls-eyed with yolk is surprising — in that, there’s nothing else in there to make it a ‘tartare’. And no toast. It might seem like the kind of blind-siding that’s completely on-brand, but it’s exactly the kind of thing you’re tacitly assured it won’t be: boring.
Resembling a diorama of safe sex for Narwhals is the expertly-cooked white asparagus, sheathed in a gleaming pork fat prophylactic, adhered and seasoned with a silken anchovy emulsion. They’re the sort of thing that I could see Action Bronson ordering buckets of in the Green Room; swirling his PetNat and wincing as Big Body Bes helps to shelve another truffle.
The ‘garlic bread and cheese’ is plated beautifully. Chive flowers and wild garlic obscure deftly-piped whipped ricotta that crowns a deeply-burnished hunk of potato bread. But as the folly of beauty tells us, it’s what’s inside that counts and what’s inside is underdone and claggy.
‘Hot and sour tomatoes’ promise welcomed slaps of retribution, pulling your hair (or caressing your scalp) and having you yelling ‘papi!’ and it delivers with the shiso leaves bringing a zen-like break amid the intensity. The sauce is such that any good entrepreneur would have long since bottled and sold at a hefty price point in the Selfridges food hall, or maybe the top shelf of a particularly good Waitrose. You’d quite happily siphon off a monthly stipend to enjoy that sauce on a regular basis.
Chunks of lion’s mane and shiitakes swirled in a duvet of truffle custard follow with a sharp — and seemingly well-timed — handbrake-turn on proceedings; the sort of comforting lull you get in the smoking area, away from the clamour of the bar. Then we’re straight back into the thick of it with sparklingly fresh bream served raw with tosazu, popping roe and sorrel. It’s bright, balanced and just the simplicity this tier of protein deserves.
Having turned up late, it’s time to give up our table to an ever-swelling room and move downstairs, which is being used as a holding room. Eventually, it dawns on us that we’ve been forgotten about — one of the worst things that can happen in a restaurant. There are few frustrations quite like it. Having initially ordered the lemon sole Americané we cancel it, after finding it’s not yet reached the grill.
For those of us who aren’t Meg, a dessert of brown butter waffle, prunes and cheese ice cream comes gratis by way of a genuine, heartfelt apology. It’s a deeply saccharine chrysalis, collapsing into a batter almost oozing, the ice cream causing it all to seize into a pleasing chew. The cheese isn’t overstated but more of a hemidemisemiquaver blessing.
The degree and quality of cooking and service mustn’t be understated, despite gasping ‘fucking hell’ being a common occurrence, from those wings through to the final bill. Sharing almost all the Small Plates™ with no large ones, plus a couple of the cheaper bottles was nearly £400.
Nathan Barley reverberates throughout yet another quintessentially Hackney experience. But despite the thumping sound system and fire engine red bathroom covered in polaroids of GoFund’ers, Papi feels a bit coy, over-compensatory, even. They’re still in what appears to be, the throes of identity creation. But I have to remind myself like a delusional admirer/creep, that my expectations were rooted in what was a summer fling-from-afar. They’ve moved on — as should I.