Although named after a plant which works variously as an emetic, a sedative, a hallucinogen and a deathly poison, The Mandrake Hotel seeks (thankfully) do the opposite for its guests and enliven if not spruce up their lives. Its ethos is a return to the heyday of London’s hotel scene around the turn of the century when heavily designed hot spots such as St Martin’s, The Sanderson, The Met turned partying into a sophisticated art. Shadows flickered, skirts glimmered foyers became canoodling quarters as integral to the hip bars they were encouraging.
Over the years that scene limped to its death, probably had babies and/or dogs but now, a few metres north of Oxford Street, towards the Tottenham Court Road end, the Mandrake invites you into its idiosyncratic world, as much rock ’n’ roll in spirit as Amazonian Rainforest, to party in the heart of luxury and glamour like it’s 1999. YOPO is the hotel’s flagship restaurant, a self-styled South American feast of culture, cuisine and atmosphere. To enter the hotel, you walk down a dark cubic passageway with zig-zagging red strips of light more reminiscent of a nightclub entrance or a Matrix rip-off. Indeed, inside, the reception is similarly lit; dark, sensual, nightclubby.
A slick usher with an iPad greets us and directs us to the left into YOPO. Illuminated almost exclusively by candlelight, generous bunches of leafery sprout throughout, a large feathered creature (which could be an ostrich but is, apparently, an amalgam of animalistic influences) practically guards the space and large moths flitter across on the ceiling’s confident monochromatic mural.
The cocktail list is soaring and exotic. The names conjure up ceremonies and tribes and living a tech-free life; Birds of Paradise, Venus Trap, Tears of God, Eternity, Jaguar, Monkey Brush etc. We chose a Flamingo, (a vodka-infused explosion of fruit flavours which is pink and tastes not dissimilar to liquid Skittles) and a Butterfly Effect (dry gin and peach brandy mixed together to mouth-watering and slightly spicy effect). Trance music pumps out like meaningful drumbeats sending messages across the forest.
We share small plates to start, each one a lively jive, practically a mini-riot of flavour. The most exotic is a Brioche Bun served with Portland Crab, small slithers of apple, topped with caviar. The brioche bun is suitably buttery and the crab is subtly sweet for an overall delicate, almost sensual start. The Tuna Tartar comes with a heavy olive oil but also a chilli and cashew cream which provides it not exactly with a kick but a little punch. Although blue tostada chips accompany, the occasional crunch of puffed buckwheat propels the dish away from ordinary tartar towards a more playful one. The Grilled Octopus with Potato and Paprika is a more formal dish but no less appealing for it. Hearty and edifying, the octopus is plentiful, chunky, tender and occasionally (the tentacles), crunchy.
As the evening progresses and more diners join, the bass kicks in but, a testament to the sound system, it never drowns out our conversation. Directly behind us, through clear glass is a smoking ‘lounge’ which is connected to the hotel’s main bar behind. The ‘lounge’ is punctuated with palm trees and, it turns out, has no roof so that during the day you can look up and see the sky but if it rains, it rains!
For mains (or Larger Plates, as they’re called) the Line-Caught Pollock swims away with a dish of the evening. It’s a meaty fish but a succulent one too with a crispy skin. Samphire decorates its top while charred corn with chickpeas provide its base. Small mushrooms make occasional appearances and the oily sauce mixes lime with something smoky. It’s a show-stopper but one the recommended side of Aubergine competes with and pretty much matches. Our waitress tells us the Aubergine is ‘famous’. I ask in what way?
Apparently, it’s always been famous, since its creation 3 years ago in Tokyo, if I heard correctly. Aubergine seems to be one of the most versatile vegetables ever and its texture, here, isn’t dissimilar to Nobu’s very own famous dish – Miso Marinated Black Cod. It’s both chunky and meaty but delicate and slick and is topped with mustard and sesame seeds. Somewhere is some buck rice for more crunch and it bathes in a miso sauce which has, in total, 28 different ingredients, known only to the chef and the menu’s creator, George Scott-Toft. It actually could be a stand-alone vegetarian dish and also shouldn’t be missed. The Chicken Breast comes from Fosse Meadows in Leicestershire and is slow-grilled for added tenderness and succulence. Oyster mushrooms are sautéed in garlic and parsley and it’s all bathed in a delicious sherry vinegar sauce for a sweet and almost joyous effect.
For dessert, we share a Mezcal Chocolate Royal which is another glorious concoction which melts in the mouth and slips down the throat effortlessly. It’s a mousse with a hazelnut and chocolate sponge, banana and coconut ice cream. It’s an unusual-looking creation, as if someone’s thrown (with love and attention, of course,) a poached egg on its top. Like previous dishes, it bursts with flavour and a little surprise; this time slithers of mezcal jelly. Rather than a coffee, we finish with the Poison Rain cocktail; basically a coffee martini with an extra shot of Mezcal.
Yopo is what’s increasingly described as an ‘immersive’ experience but this belies the exoticism and inventive fusing of flavours for dishes which are very confident, never predictable and more often than not, jaw-dropping. Whilst it might have its eyes on a younger, party crowd, its design, quality and attention to detail should attract older diners. As a final testament, the service was impeccable throughout with knowledgeable, friendly and attentive staff which is something lacking in the majority of greater London restaurants today. Do go. Don’t worry about a rain jacket.
Address: At The Mandrake Hotel, 20-21 Newman Street Yopo, London W1T 1PG