I love Christmas. Really, I do. It’s another world entirely, the Upside Down, a parallel universe where common earthly notions of what constitutes acceptable and rational behaviour are inverted beyond recognition. Good sense goes out the window. People boil red wine before they drink it and eat turkey of their own volition, a collective lapse in taste and judgement that begins with the first office party and reaches its inevitable anti-climax on New Year’s Eve. Of course, the crafty ones among us see this as an opportunity, a licence to get away with things we would never usually dream of admitting to. I can play Wham! at a party without fear of being ejected from the premises. It’s exhilarating.
And yet with each year that passes I find myself dreading it more and more. The perfect Christmas is a fragile thing, an unstable mass of enforced festivity teetering perilously atop a mountain of angst; so much has to be in place for things to go just right that all it takes is one person to forget the stilton, one grandparent to get the norovirus, one family member to wake the children in the middle of the night by singing in his sleep and the whole thing comes crashing down, crushing all good will in one fell swoop.
This year the dread has been extreme. It’s taken me three separate visits to a department store before I could acknowledge that Christmas was coming and actually start buying presents. The first time I was rushed, the second hungover, the third truly panicked. Time to leave the comfort blanket of Amazon Prime and face up to reality. Three hours on Oxford Street. Go.
Well, it took me thirty minutes and roughly three times as much as I had intended to spend to decide that I’d done enough Christmas shopping for the morning and now it was time to buy myself lunch at the new Bonnie Gull in Soho. I’ve never visited the original in Fitzrovia, nor (shamefully) was it on my list of places to go, but a quick search for new openings in Soho told tales of a new outpost of the self-styled “Seafood Shack”, and this being December my corrupted reason needed little convincing to sack off presents yet again and warm myself up with an icy fresh platter of oysters.
It was one of the best decisions of recent years. I was seated immediately and wasted no time in ordering from a hugely appealing and varied menu. The place had only been open for four days on my visit but with food this assured you’d swear they’d been born into it (ok, this is the third outpost so technically they have). Loch Ryan native oysters: perfect, no dressing up needed. Kale tempura, anchovy mayo. Sounds innocuous, unnecessary even. The sort of thing you don’t put on the menu unless you’re absolutely certain you know what you’re doing. Well, pleased to report that this was a revelation; fists of crunchy kale in light batter with the salt and vinegar kick of boquerones and a textbook mayonnaise, essentially the greatest hits of fish and chips without the stodgy filler. Ingenious. And it would be rude not to mention the Selsey crab, brown meat panna cotta, bisque. One often hears tales of wagyu beef cattle reared on a diet of craft ale and hot stone massages, most of them questionable. I have no doubt, however, that this crab had spent its whole life grazing on nothing but new season’s peas and broad beans, perhaps a little mint, all washed down with a crisp Sancerre. It was fresh, plump, perfectly prepared, and even came with a surprise remoulade for good measure. I wolfed it all down in seconds, justifying my gluttony by telling myself that I wouldn’t be allowed pudding, only to buckle at the first mention of a treacle tart. Personally I found that the pastry was rolled a little too thin (the first time I’ve ever made that complaint, I’ll admit), to the extent that there was almost no shift in texture at all between filling and base, but the flavour was as decadent and rich as you could hope for, and if a ridiculous comment like “pastry too thin” is all I can say then to be honest I’d better shut up.
What was clear on my visit was the clarity of the vision of the place. Speaking to the manager as I settled the bill he told me proudly of the lengths his chefs would go to source the best fish, and it shows. This is impeccable produce served impeccably well by people who understand it. In darkest December Bonnie Gullfeels like a summer heatwave, just the place to hide from the crowds and while away the afternoon. No yuletide lapse in judgement here; this is how it should be done.