Since returning from my adventures at sea, I’ve been a bit of a hermit, working on a large project while my darling husband has been in Moscow, Cairo and now Amman covering significant world events. The couple of times I have gone out to eat I haven’t enjoyed myself, finding the food tasteless and sitting tedious. But then I heard that the guy behind Bone Daddies (read my review here) had opened a new restaurant featuring Japanese food, specifically steamed buns with different fillings. Well, you’ve read about my Momofuku obsession, in particular his pork buns with plum sauce, pickled cucumbers and green onions. A whole restaurant devoted to these little morsels? This could be the wake-up call my taste buds need. I’m there!
It’s the August Bank Holiday weekend here in London, the equivalent to Memorial Day weekend. Of course, the weather has been spotty to say the least, but on Saturday, when I was meeting my friends at Flesh & Buns in Covent Garden, the rain came down in sheets. We decided on a late afternoon meal to avoid the rush and ensure a table, but needn’t have worried, the weather kept everyone else at home. There’s not one window in the cavernous, cave-like space located under the popular shops on Earlham Street near Seven Dials. A long, wide staircase down and you’re thrust into a very bright, white, sterile space with the bar and open kitchen serving as bookends to the seating area. Perhaps a room bustling with customers would have provided a warmer backdrop, but as it was, it felt a little IKEA.
As there were five of us we were able to sample a good portion of the menu which is divided into categories: Raw & Snacks, Small Dishes – Cold, Small Dishes – Hot, Flesh & Buns, Rice etc. I adore small plate sharing and couldn’t wait to dive into the variety of Japanese style (I say style because they weren’t all traditionally authentic) dishes. And what I would recommend is to go heavy on the small dishes and lighter on the flesh & buns, a little bit counterintuative. We tried the yellowtail sashimi – the lime, soy and chilli granita on top was cool and lovely, the beef tataki – perfect texture and seasoning, the prawn tempura sushi roll – was what it said on the tin, fried squid and fried softshell crab – so inspiring that I have a piece of squid in my fridge waiting to be fried up for lunch today.
Tastebuds properly warmed up, out came the flesh & buns. First a flat iron steak with BBQ sauce and pickled shimeji. I took the fluffy PacMan shaped bun and filled it with a couple of slices of meat, the pickled shimeji and drizzled on the slightly anemic looking sauce. The steak on its own would have been OK, we all agreed, but it was impossible to pull apart with your teeth in the bun. The sauce was as anemic tasting as it looked and the pickled shimeji was a complete throw-away, no taste at all. Not a promising start. While the pork belly’s texture was fine but bordering on dry, and, again, the pickled apples that accompanied it were virtually tasteless, the steamed buns being the predominant texture and taste of this second dish. Finally came our fried sole flesh with a little ginger mayo and pickled daikon. Again, the pickles had none of that tart flavor that is crucial to making the buns feel less heavy in your mouth and while the fried sole was fine, it tasted more fried than sole, depending too heavily on its batter.
While we took a breather before ordering dessert, I told my friends that I think that buns like this should maybe be eaten only as an appetizer, in small quantities. I could feel the buns expanding in my stomach. Furthermore, none of the components of the buns could stand up to the spongy white dough. The pickled elements were also microplaned way too thinly, so they were more like mush, not able to carry any flavor in them. At Momofuku (I know I compare things too often to this place, but it is the standard for me), the greasy pork belly slices seem to melt into the bao (or buns which are made from a simple flour and yeast dough) and the pickled cucumbers are really substantial and sweet and sour and crunchy, offering a contrasting texture and flavor. Finally, the thick plum sauce adds a gooey sweetness – all adding up to a party in your mouth.
Desserts were good but terribly sweet for me. The yuzu mojito sorbet that accompanied the crispy bananas was really the highlight (one friend asked the waitress if it was possible to get a tub for take away – um, no). The smores were dramatic (although the server gave us detailed instructions on how to toast our marshmallows over the flame and warned us not to burn the outside. Doesn’t he know that’s the best way to eat them??) and I’d love to know how they made their “graham crackers.” The donuts with black sugar custard were good, but could have benefitted from some kind of sharp, fruity dipping sauce.
Alas, I likely won’t be returning to Flesh & Buns anytime soon and hope they rethink some of their choices. The premise of this venture is so promising but the details lack the flavor and execution to make the stars of this show, the namesake of this restaurant, shine. And we all know what they say about the details.
Flesh & Buns,
41 Earlham St, London WC2H 9LX
020 7632 9500