I turned my back on Soho in October 2016, twenty-seven and a half years after I first walked through the door of TVP in Golden Square. I started as a runner, one of those fresh-faced types that would grab coffee, fetch lunches and ferry videotapes around. There–videotapes. Shows you how long ago it was. That first job is still in my bones. On the rare occasions when I slide back into the map of those streets (something I try not to do very often–memories have teeth and I am full of the scars they have inflicted) I navigate by the pubs, shops and restaurants that were the essential network of my working day. Flitting, frictionless and slippery as an eel through the tributaries, eyeblink-quick, in and out of the bars and brasseries with duplicate receipts that would help bolster the Monopoly money that constituted my pay packet. I could almost do it with my eyes closed. Sometimes, at four in the morning, running out for a packet of fags for a client on a crunch deadline, I probably did.
I still remember the order that a longstanding TVP client would insist was waiting for them in the edit suite before they arrived. A bottle of fizz. Two six packs of Budweiser. A six pack of cokes. A bottle of Captain Morgan. A bucket of ice. The fuel by which TV adverts are finished.
Once the booze was cracked, I’d be back in with the menus, praying for an easy order. If I was really lucky, everyone would order from the same place. If not, perhaps they’d at least keep it local, to Beak Street–the Andrea Doria for Italian, the Gallery Rendezvous for Chinese, maybe the Soho Pizzeria on the corner of the Square itself. More often, my luck would be out. I’d be ordering from four different places, still expected to have everything served together and hot and bloody toot sweet, sunshine.
The Soho I walked into in the spring of 1991 was not the Soho I left twenty-seven and a half years later. I was not the same Rob Wickings, of course. Married, a veteran of a spate of redundancies, battle-scarred, rheum of eye, knotty of joint. Eel-quick no more, and the dirty water I navigated so easily was both cleaner and more difficult to see through.
Most of my landmarks and waypoints have gone, you see. I’m half-blind if I walk through Soho now. The Andrea Doria is a coffee shop. The Gallery Rendezvous, a wine cafe. Soho Pizzeria, where I used to take TLC when we worked close enough to meet for romantic dinners, a little light jazz and a bottle of wine? A fucking Byron. TVP is long gone too, a faceless office space. Crossrail and gentrification has rubbed a rough dishcloth over Soho’s grubby face, cleaning it up and wiping the smile off its face.
Yeah, yeah. Poor old man. Can’t wrap your arms around a memory, right? You left, and you won’t go back, so what’s the big deal? You’re right. I shouldn’t get moony-eyed over a place I actively hated for the last decade in which I stalked its corners. But you don’t leave all that behind so easily.
It’s chicken that gets me thinking about Soho. More specifically, it’s a pair of dishes that were lunch regulars. You can still get one if you know where to look. The other is long gone. Both, if I see them on a menu, will instantly be considered as a contender. Both will not live up to expectations. But that’s what memory will do for you. It over-salts everything.
The Denman Street entrance to the Ham Yard Hotel complex is just an archway now, with a couple of retail units (you can’t really call them shops, they’re facades with products and a till in them) on either side. That plot used to house my very favourite place for lunch in all of Soho, and to be honest, the country.
The New Piccadilly Restaurant was an Anglo-Italian joint, a warm, jolly and utterly unpretentious place that would feed and water you for prices that would be unthinkable in today’s Soho. It was a refuge, a place where you could restore a sense of balance and sanity over a plate of food shared with friends. I loved it so much, it made a cameo appearance in a book that, to my shame, remains unfinished. Indulge me, because I’m about to offload an extract on you. Say hello to Inigo Jones, main character of The Prisoner Of Soho, as he finds a place to hole up after a savage beating…
Inigo was a creature of habit, and sensitive to territory. He had been born and raised in Soho, in a walk-up overlooking Berwick Street Market. The tiny block of Central London streets bounded on one side by Regent Street, and on the other by Shaftesbury Avenue, were all he knew and all he cared to know. He got nervous if he had to cross Oxford Street. The very prospect of a neighbourhood calling itself Noho filled him with horror. It would be like home territory only… different, somehow. The innate wrongness of this idea would be enough to keep him up at night.
It was an exquisite torture, then, that Inigo’s favourite cafe was on the very border of his self-imposed comfort zone. The New Piccadilly on Denman Street was, arguably, outside this zone. His friends took great pleasure in pointing this out to him.
“Too close to Dick and Pilly Circus, In,” they’d crow. “No such thing as a buffer zone. It’s over the border. You shouldn’t be there.”
Inigo was unrepentant. It was the one point regarding geography at which he would be prepared to loosen up.
“The point is,” he’d argue, “that there are a lot of places in the absolute heart of the territory that could have come from anywhere. Multinational coffee shops, franchise restaurants, you can find ‘em everywhere, and they’ll always be the same. The New Pick…”
He’d always pause at this point, and allow a beatific smile to slide over his fine-boned features. This was always the moment that his pals would regret bringing up the subject. There was always a rhapsodic soliloquy coming up behind that smile.
“The New Pick is the heart of Soho. It’s been there since whenever, it’s survived however many attempts at closure and takeovers. Unchanged. Uncompromised. It’s the pulse of our streets, ladies. The beat of the drum that keeps us marching. If there was a way of redrawing the map, of moving the place lock stock and big pink Astra espresso machine and dumping it onto Wardour Street, I’d do it in an instant. But I can’t, and it doesn’t matter. Because, my friends, the New Piccadilly is not in Soho.”
“Soho is in the New Piccadilly.”
He clanged the door open to the comforting fug of steam and frying smells. Every surface was in a warm colour, custard yellow on the walls, lemon on the formica tops of the tables, a deep crimson on the seat backs, age-darkened mahogony on the floors. Every vertical surface was encrusted with posters to West End shows, however small, however fleeting their moment on the stage. The more esoteric the better, it seemed. The place had not been properly redecorated since it had first opened its doors in 1951.
The formica, the light fittings that looked like the motors from the Saturn V rocket, even the menu mounted on a piece of horseshoe-shaped chipboard, all of it was from a different, more glamourous age. There were two banks of booths, leading back to the more secretive seating area at the back. Inigo’s preferred spot, even though it was closer to the bogs. Today, precisely because it was closer to the bogs.
Inigo nodded a wink to the avuncular white-haired gent in white shirt and burgundy cravat holding court behind the counter. “Ciao, Lorenzo,” he husked. Lorenzo nodded back and without another word moved over to the giant pink espresso machine on the corner of the bar. On the front, the legend W PICCADILLY was picked out in gold letters. He’d never seen the point in getting it fixed. The important part of the Astra was what went on under the bonnet.
And so on. Lorenzo, in case you’re wondering, was the owner of the New Pick, Lorenzo Morioni, and I only wish I knew him as well as Inigo does in Prisoner. Look, if you can’t wish-fulfil in your own unpublished novel, when can you?
Lunch would always be the same, no matter how much I’d hum and erm and wrinkle my nose. It was almost a running joke. Of course I would have the Pollo alla Milanese. What else could I do? Nothing else would ever come close.
What’s the big deal? You can get chicken Milanese just about everywhere. Any Italian joint will, at some point, stick a breaded escalope on the menu and have done with it. I’ve had plenty in my time and they are all, without exception, disappointments. They do not hit the spot in the same brutally laser-guided fashion that the New Pick’s PaM did.
Picture this. A huge oval plate is plonked in front of you. The main feature is a pounded escalope the length of my boot-sole (I take a size 10, 43 EU sizing), thickly breaded and still sizzling from the deep fryer. Alongside that, a generous swirl of spaghetti dosed with the most Heinz-Cream-Of-Tomato-flavoured red sauce you’ll ever get. Alongside that, a side of chips. And a wedge of lemon. It was the most absurdly generous carb-bomb you could get, the chicken still juicy, the chips (NOT fries) clearly done to order with the escalope, the pasta al dente, the sauce almost like ketchup bringing everything together.
My mouth is watering just thinking about it. I used to have a strawberry milkshake to chase the food down. Post-lunch would frequently pass in a semi-comatose blur.
I know. I am a monster of horrifying and unsatisfiable appetite.
Sadly, Inigo’s prediction as to the invulnerability of the New Piccadilly proved all too false, and it closed at the end of 2007. I took lunch there a couple of days before Lorenzo shut up shop for good. It was almost unbearably poignant, a sense of ending only sharpened by the fact that the food was prepared with the same sense of care and generosity as ever. For me, the closure of the New Pick was the first sign of Soho, my Soho slipping away from under my size 10s. I knew I’d never eat that meal again, and nothing I would do would ever come close. Believe me, I’ve tried. But then, how could I succeed? Chicken Milanese at the New Pick was as much about the surroundings and the people as the food. Memory is a most troublesome seasoning.
Anyway. Onwards to a meal that you can, at least for now, try for yourself.
Shelley’s Cafe on Dean Street is a favourite of many Soho office workers, who will still queue cheerfully for wraps and salads. A merger with another business next door, Make Mine, meant much of the Japanese grub that made Shelley’s distinctive was shunted off menu. But you can still get the chicken Katsu curry from a counter at the back. And believe me, you really really should.
What’s the big deal? You can get katsu absolutely everywhere. Itsu do it as a soup, ferfuxache. It’s one of those items that transcends cultural boundaries. Breaded chicken with a curry gravy. So what?
Here’s what. Order a large (because you need the full experience) and snag a seat in the tiny seating area at the back of the cafe. You’ll get a clamshell foam dish capped with a Panko-crusted escalope as big as my slipper (UK10, EU43) cut on the bias into easily-forkable slices. Underneath, a dense slab of rice. So far, so ho hum.
It’s the curry that does it. This is not a curry sauce. It’s a meal in itself. Classic Japanese curry flavours mixed into chunks of potato, carrot and yet more chicken. Sloppy enough to dip and scoop, thick enough to hold its own against the meat. It’s an extraordinarily balanced, rich and hearty main course that frequently dropped me into an afternoon dream-state. Utter, utter bliss. Against this, all other katsu currys feel like half a meal. I’d sometimes have them three times in a week.
Like I said before, monster, appetite, etc.
There’s something about the simple presentation of the Shelley’s katsu that makes it. Opening up the styrofoam to be presented with that slab of protein, moments before the fragrant steam hits you and oh god my mouth is watering again. Like the New Pick’s escalope, chips and spaghetti, it’s not pretty. But by all the gods in whatever shrine you choose to light your candle, Shelley’s katsu curry does the job.
Two meals, then, both alike in many ways. Both memorials to a past life. Both points on a compass towards the man I was, and the man I am now. Both ring my bell like Quasimodo whenever I see them on a menu. I am a simple man of hideous and unredeemable appetite and I know what I like.
It’s possible Soho made me that way.
I’ll never stop looking for Pollo Milanese done the New Pick way. As for Shelley’s–well, that one I can at least come close to in a home setting, although TLC does insist on eating off a plate rather than out of a clamshell. It’s a quest with no real ending, but a whole ton of delicious stops along the way. Proust had his biscuits, Joyce his kidneys. Me? I have breaded chicken, two ways. Simple as that.
But then, there is the vexed question of the Meat Box from Palms Of Goa on Meard Street (now an Honest Burger). Which is a whole other story.
For more on the New Pick, take a look at the Classic Cafes page dedicated to it.
Shelley’s can be found at 87 Dean Street in Soho. Here’s a recent review, courtesy of Kiwi food blogger Donut Sam.