Jan Moir Are You Ready To Order
The Hix Oyster & Chop House is situated in its own little street near Smithfield market. It is a brand new restaurant; so new that this lunchtime, the proper light shades have yet to be fitted, the downstairs area smells of fresh paint and dry goods are still being delivered through the front door. Here come the sacks of rice to go with the Blackface mutton chop curry, there goes the flour for the scrumpy batter used to coat the puffy, deep fried onion rings. Just as a waiter brings our platter of mixed oysters, their shells iridescent with green zinc, a man arrives with a new wooden ladder for the bar. ‘Stain it,’ says Mark Hix, who is cheerfully patrolling in his clogs and whites. I do like that attention to detail, don’t you?
Local restrauteurs and friends are amongst the early bird customers who crowd the 60 seat chop house. Many are tucking into great, hunky steaks served on platters, accompanied by lettuce heart salads piled into wooden bowls and dressed with pale vinaigrette. Bottles of this lovely dressing are left on the table in case diners desire an extra shake; more nice detail. Meanwhile, claret tumbles into glasses, a cork pops on another bottle of champagne and the good ship Hix gently slips its moorings and sets sail into the world. And while its dimensions may be modest, it is clinker-built and trim. A long bar runs down the left side of the restaurant, with tall chairs and places set for eating. Over on the right, a prep area dominates, complete with shucking station, baskets of oysters and a battalion of Tabasco bottles. In between are sturdy tables covered with neat, white tablecloths, proper cutlery, good glasses and classic flatware. The walls are tiled and the atmosphere is cheerful, while the Duchy of Cornwall native oysters are fresh and delicious.
Hix is a proper chophouse. All the meat served here is on the bone, excepting the hangar steak, which comes with its own baked bone marrow instead. The brown paper menu is a study in the art of good sourcing and food history appreciation; starters include fried skate knobs with caper mayonnaise; water souchet (a kind of fish soup) and a soft boiled goose egg with radishes and celery salt. Main courses feature lamb cutlets ‘Reform’; beef and oyster pie; a roast chicken with wild garlic sauce for two; and four different cuts of 28 day-aged Aberdeenshire beef.
We try the smoked salmon, which chef Hix prepares himself by curing the fish with molasses and sugar, and then smoking it a smokebox in the garden of his Islington home. He uses top quality farmed salmon, which ensures the fish is firm and dry, and his smoking skills are excellent. The fish tastes of itself, with a lovely smoky undertow. A chunk of rabbit brawn is robust and meaty, served with tiny fresh peas, pungent pea shoots and a dab of English mustard. The 850g Porterhouse steak for two is carved at the table; pink slices of sirloin to the right, the fillet to the left. It has tremendous flavour and its edges are crimped with sweet, golden fat.
What the Dickens...
Faultless side orders include steamed purple sprouting broccoli, the aforementioned onions and a ‘spring’ bubble and squeak which contains broad beans and peas. S finds the latter quite overwhelming. ‘Brilliant,’ he says, glad to be back in the land of meat after last week’s excursion to a vegetarian restaurant.
The beef flank and oyster pie looks like the kind of thing Samuel Pepys might have tucked into; with its golden dome of pastry and a grilled oyster in its shell garnishing the top. The filling beneath is rich and heady; the mingled flavours of the cooked oysters and the tender beef have an alluring Dickensian piquancy.
The latter is exactly the kind of thing one expects to see on a Mark Hix menu. In his unassuming way, this chef has been a potent force on the London restaurant scene for at least a decade. Best known as the chef director of Caprice Holdings, Hix was the man in charge of what the customers ate at The Ivy, Le Caprice, J. Sheekey and, latterly, Scott’s. Known as one of the best executive chefs in the business, Hix can be credited with redefining a kind of contemporary, template seasonal menu that has since been much copied elsewhere. Earlier this year he decided to leave the corporate world and branch out on his own. This is his first stand alone restaurant, where he has utilised many of the antique and junk shop finds he has collected over the years to add a personal touch to the table settings. The pewter finger bowls, whisky water jugs, cook book collection and copper pans on the walls all belong to him. Always keen on using the best of native British food, he has a diviner’s touch when it comes to sourcing quality produce. If it’s on a Hix menu, it is going to be good and if it features on a Hix wine list, someone will have thought carefully about its inclusion.
The Chop House wine list is built for comfort; for long afternoons getting spent stuck into some serious beefy lunching with a bottle of something decent alongside. There is a good selection of rich, spicy reds from Spain, Argentina, Portugal, etc, with a house red (made from the tempranillo grape, £14). Whites are equally expansive, while beers and cider are also available.
Desserts are a parade of nursery favourites. Hix’s perry jelly is a hoop of pale gold encircling a dome of lovely pear ice cream. There is also Jersey creamed rice with prunes; rhubarb and custard; buttermilk drop scones with East London honey and honeycomb ice cream; and a Bakewell pudding for two.
The corporate world’s loss is our gain. A simple, honest to goodness chop house such as this is so Mark Hix, especially one with pennywort salad, salted ox cheeks and goose eggs on the menu. On top of this, the cheerful prices and quality ingredients make Hix one of our top pix.
- Hix Oyster & Chop House, 35-37 Greenhill Rents, Cowcross Street, London EC1M 6BF. Tel: 020 7017 1930.Dinner for two, excluding drinks and service, £60.