Bacchanalia at Blacks
‘Bacchanalia’, the name given to the supper club at Soho members’ club Blacks, is a fairly precocious title for a Sunday lunch. But, if the scrambled, hazy recesses of my memory serve, this one lived up to its billing. Perhaps I could best sum up the mood by explaining that when I surfaced onto a drizzly, dull Dean Street at 8pm after the event, I had to ask a passerby whether it was evening or morning, such was the level of befuddled booziness the meal had caused.
It’s going to take a superhuman effort to fumble back there in my mind and recall what I ate and what it tasted like. Let’s start with the facts: Tom Parker Bowles was our chef for this month’s Bacchanalia, his second culinary collaboration there with Blacks’ resident chef, Alberto Figueroa, on a Mexican-themed menu. The next instalment will see Ms Marmite Lover, the food blogger with a tremendous cult following, taking up the mantle.
Like many of the historic venues dotted around this part of Soho, Blacks looks nothing more from the outside than an unassuming Georgian townhouse, yet behind its unmarked black door a heritage-packed, eclectically-attired bolthole awaits those in the know. You enter at basement level by descending a rickety steel staircase from the street into somewhere resembling a Dickensian tavern, all long oak benches and exposed beams with a deep fireplace, Farrow & Ball-tinted walls and enigmatic oil paintings.
Joshua Reynolds and Samuel Johnson were regulars here in the 18th century, co-founding Blacks’ original supper gathering – simply and nonchalantly called ‘The Club’– in 1764. The venue has no official website and, unlike many of London’s ancient private members’ clubs – now sanitised versions of their former selves, filled with City boys and Moet – this place oozes character, from its creaking floorboards to the mismatched tapestry cushions, and you can almost feel the ghosts of past poets and painters whistling around you.
The sort of jolly communality I’d envisaged Victorian watering holes to possess is very much in evidence here. Before I’m halfway through my first Bloody Mary, I find myself deep in conversation with a high-flying photographer (who promptly whips out his iPad to show me his portfolio of nude male models; the art historian in me nervously compliments his use of chiaroscuro, but maybe I’m missing the point) and a millionaire Australian art dealer is insisting I visit his friend’s vineyard down under. Tom pops up every now and again in a food-splattered, Tabasco Sauce-emblazoned apron to affably insist the work’s really all down to Alberto.
Everyone cosies up on the communal tables in the upstairs dining room as a spicy shrimp broth is ladled out. There’s no standing on ceremony, such is the appeal of supper club dining: you’re encouraged to go up for second or even third helpings, everyone looks like they’re playing musical chairs as seats are continually swapped, and conversation rises to a level one notch away from raucous.
A buffet is unveiled with heaped bowls of unusual salads – slices of yam and citrus fruits in one, cold sea bream with pomegranate seeds in another and, to my surprise, both combinations work very well – along with Mexican staples like refried black beans, red hot salsa and creamy guacamole. Parcels of warm tortillas wrapped up in napkins are passed around. Bottles of white wine keep getting emptied. A cactus plant salad comes out, which sounds bizarre but actually tastes rather like pickled gherkins, with the crunchy green vegetable fingers sliced up in vinaigrette.
The main course is something involving pork. (I’ve since asked my carnivorous co-diner for more information, but he just shakes his head piteously and says he can’t recall anything post-cactus.) As a vegetarian, I originally quail at the rather meaty main course options, but either Tom or Alberto kindly whips up a cannelloni-style dish of rolled pancakes filled with creamed spinach and spicy tomato for me.
After the umpteenth glass of wine, little glasses of mango sorbet arrive, a refreshingly light and sweet conclusion to the meal. Most people have a stabilising coffee at this point. However, I opt for a pot of herbal tea because earlier in the bar I’d spoken to the owner of the Rare Tea Company, who supplies the infusions. Henrietta, wearing a miniature teacup pendant necklace, was pretty seething about her unwitting appearance on The Apprentice a few weeks ago (remember the £990 camomile leaves for which the hapless Team Logic forked out?). For the record, she had no idea what programme the group was from, was waylaid in the middle of a charity function at the time, and everyone missed the point that extremely fragile and rare camomile leaves are another thing entirely to plain old camomile tea.
Some of the more cautious diners take off after dessert (remembering it was Monday the next day), but the majority of us slink back down to the cosy cellar bar to continue the Bacchanalia. At Tom’s last Mexican supper club, the founder of The Tequila Society, Cleo Rocos, whose personal mission is to promote the fiery spirit in the UK, was present to dole out margaritas and slammers. Although this time she was lamentably absent, if you’re reading this, Cleo, be assured that we heartily took to your cause.
My Sunday lunch at Blacks spanned eight tequila-drenched hours, a feat that surely Bacchus himself would salute. During this heady time I was initiated into the hedonistic yet inclusive atmosphere of Blacks – not to mention discovering that Tom Parker Bowles makes a mean guacamole. Placing my foot tentatively back onto the rain-slick pavement, to find myself not in Mexico or Ancient Rome or even a Wildean dream, but instead a plain old Sunday evening in London, was a mighty crash back to reality. And don’t even get me started on the hangover.
Blacks Members’ Club, 67 Dean Street, Soho, London W1D 4QH. Tel: 020 7287 3381. The supper club is held bi-monthly, £35 per head excluding drinks, booking is essential.