David Muñoz stares out from the website of his three Michelin star garlanded Madrid restaurant DiverXO with an expression teetering between contempt and disgust. In another frame, he’s sticking his tongue out provocatively in a “nah nah nah nah nah” pose. Another image styles him as some sort of demented Joker. A pared back, minimalist Mohican is his bouffon of choice. “Welcome to the dream world of Dabiz Muñoz”, it trumpets.
A video runs showing him daubing and splattering a huge canvas with paint, while another plays out a slickly shot film of a dinner party, an aberrant motley crew of diners embarking on an eye-widening meal overlaid by a horror schtick voiceover: a couple of the diners appear to climax after licking plates clean, feeding their neighbour a morsel, or quaffing another glass of iconic Spanish red Dominio de Pingus. It turns out the short film is an award winning one, directed by Marc Ortiz. It’s an entertaining, dark, and revealing insight into Muñoz’s ‘shtick’: ‘I’m not going to stop until your shouts, your laughter and your tears, are sincere’, drawls the narrator as David strolls menacingly into shot. Ooo-err.
This is chef as punk, as enfant terrible, as deviant artist, a version of A Clockwork Orange’s Alex, another pose on the site showing him with right eye dramatically tricked out with mascara (he’s clearly a fan of Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film of Anthony Burgess’s novel). This droog, as Alex would have intoned, is here to shock and dazzle with cookery as performance, as spectacle and drama. He will come across to many, with all this ego-driven frippery, as a bit of a dick.
However, David knows London well, having worked here for five years, at Hakkasan and David Thompson’s Nahm, as well as time with Giorgio Locatelli and Jun Tanaka. Also, refreshingly, this isn’t a Michelin starred chef opening in a hotel (hoorah), so the place has a chance of cementing its own identity. Street XO is the more ‘casual’ version of his restaurants, one of which he also owns in Madrid.
The subterranean site in Mayfair adds a freaky feel to goings on (sepulchral, lots of black), shades of ghost train (‘food scene, do not cross’ yellow tape across a door), horror film (greeted by a Mohican coiffured figure painted on a wall, Friday the 13th hockey mask), leading into the massive open kitchen taking up almost half the room, replete with counter seats, crammed with steamers, woks, a robata grill, flat tops, gas burners… the project may have been delayed for over two years, but they’ve still thrown the wedge at it. The insistent beats thrumming through the room may best be described as ‘Euro House’… at lunchtime, senses are skewed and it could quite easily be 1am.
Straitjacket chic is a thing here, all the chefs kitted out in natty white ones (just like the one David is seen wearing in that Ortiz film, natch). I count thirteen chefs (that I can see), a brigade bustling with alumni from places like Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner and Jason Atherton’s ever-burgeoning empire. There are clearly some laudable shapes being thrown in this kitchen.
Shrieking exclamation marks litter the menu (‘XO sauce and Lapsang Souchong tea!!!’), a sprawling page punctuated with abstract headings of Style, One More, Fire, Surreal. No form or structure here, you’re encouraged to flail around on your own.
Chatting to a charismatic chef, he persuades me to try a cocktail. Liquid DiverXO is enthusiastically pushed: a hellish sounding concoction of jasmine, coconut vinegar, lime, ginger and violet essence.It makes me smile when it comes out, a goblet so large it feels like I’ve popped one of Alice in Wonderland’s extra special pills and shrunk to the size of a gnome, the drink a bilious purple. It’s theme park comedy and chintz. After working through the teeth and gum jarringly sweet concoction, a nightmare of liquid Parma Violets, the smile has gone. It makes me feel like glassing someone. A fine weapon it would make, too.
Instead of indulging in a good old fashioned glassing (unconscious chanelling of ‘a little of the old ultraviolence’, A Clockwork Orange style?), the first of two visits reveals some of the below…
Pekinese Dumpling (£14.50) – This sounds batshit mental from the kick-off (‘crunchy pig’s ear, strawberry hoisin, Ali-oli, and pickles!!!’), a hallucinatory vision. Somehow, it works. Jackson Pollock-esque splatters of strawberry hoisin sauce have been flicked all over the piece of white paper (yeah, paper), and it’s great fun picking up the duck filled dumplings between fingers and chasing the red gore, scooping it up, crunch of confit ear, snap of pickle, a two bite job: this I like, massive smile throughout speaking volumes. The aftermath of the plate (paper) looks like nothing less than a crime scene, smears of crimson leaving a shrill scene behind.
The Rabbit and the Carrot (£5.50) – Braised rabbit dumplings (underseasoned, a faint echo of Chinese five spice made with pasta dough, carrot ‘textures’ (baby carrot, foam, balls of carrot ‘caviar’, blobs of pappy carrot purée that call to mind Cow & Gate), a scattering of those giant salted corns (‘crunchy kikos!!’) found in Spanish restaurants. The abstract plate sits on a stand of severed fingers. The cheapest dish on the menu is one I will never ever order again. Bizarre, joyless, silly.
‘La Pedroche’ Croquettes (£18.90) – Four plump croquettes of ‘kimchi and sheep’s milk’ have a layer of fatty toro tuna draped across, a dab of butter on top is singed with a hot coal at the bar, topped with XO sauce and a sprinkle of Lapsang Souchon tea powder. Hectically oversalted, molten kimchi and sheep’s milk explode in the mouth, the belly tuna obliterated, even its silken texture, by all the other jazz. A struggle to get through the third one.
Canton-Galicia-Mexico (£19) – Grilled Galician octopus with a slick of lurid green tomatillo and green apple mole, with ‘fake Chinese wok noodle’ made with Enoki mushrooms, calling to mind Wylie Dufresne’s culinary gymnastics at the departed New York restaurant wd~50 with his ‘shrimp spaghetti, pasta made purely with, well, shrimp. More char on the octopus needed, striking presentation. Enjoyed the fun slithery ‘noodles’.
Paella Rossejat (£19.90) – Ordered on both visits. Fideuà noodles steeped in a rich prawn stock, humming with essence of boiled prawn heads and shells, a take on the Catalan paella-a-like made with vermicelli noodles. Tiny chunks of chicken wing meat each with its own bit of crisp skin, topped with sea urchin, pickles, yellow aji chilli pepper, and red veined sorrel leaf. A citrus note coming from bergamot jives weirdly against the iodine twang of sea urchin. Kind of fun to eat, but nudging £20 feels toppy for this meagre portion.
Prawn Suquet Stew (£19.50) – A visual wow of orange. Two fat carabiñieros prawns sit on a pool of orange ‘stew’, two prawn dumplings (har gau style) hiding under a crisp cracker with little shrimps jutting out. Something approaching value here, those carabiñieros aren’t cheap. Fun.
Enjoy a trip between Andalusian and Bangkok’s beaches (£14.60) – Yes, the dish is called exactly this. Grilled squid with green papaya, sour and spicy hibiscus dressing, blobs of fine herbs and lime pesto. Dodge that pesto, a well balanced dish pushed out of kilter by these splodges.
Steamed Club Sandwich (£14.50) – Enjoyed this. Fluffy bun filled with minced pork, topped with a smear of chilli cream, ricotta and a fried quail’s egg. Booze soaker-upper.
Paris Style Chilli Crab (£18.90) – Chunks of sweet king crab, slithery ‘sherry spaghetti’, fried curry leaves, topped with softshell crab and ‘butter-champagne emulsion!!!’. Intriguing. Those spaghetti demonstrating some great tricksy, cheffy technique. Jury still out.
Almost a Carbonara XO Style (£15.50) – Wok fried udon with a ragù-like ‘White civet of wild boar’. Tinned black pitted olives a right turn off.
Zucchini Flower Salad (£11.30) – Pointless. £11.30 worth of pointless. ‘Spicy chlorophyll acidulated oil’, apparently. Green olive emulsion, oranges, poppy seeds.
Bonkers. Street XO is clearly bonkers. Some good, some bad, some fun. Bonkers. Willy Wonka on a bad trip. A nefarious theme park. Would we praise Heston Blumenthal for this kind of jiggery pokery? Probably. A chef who’s with me on one visit poses a valid question: “If we were in another city having this meal, would we be enjoying it more, without sneering?” Probably, yes. The word ‘fun’ crops up several times during that meal. Intake of breath, sometimes restaurants can be fun rather than worthy.
Will some people hate Street XO? Yes, big time. I spaffed £70 and £90 on two visits. That’s pricey spaffing for just ‘fun’. I like the chefs I chatted to, who tell me David will be cooking here every Sunday and Monday (straitjacket and all), I like the front of house team, despite their Hammer Horror style flicky Dracula tailed gear (ex-Hakkasan, one chap), and the wine list is far better than all the shenanigans gives it any right to be. We enjoy pristine Morgon from Anthony Thevenet, good dry German Riesling from Pauly, and I spot Loire legend Richard Leroy behind glass on the way in, alongside Meursault stalwart Rémi-Jobard and scintillating grower Champagne from Emmanuel Brochet. Speak to sommelier Antonio, who knows his grape juice.
What’s it going to be then, eh? Madness or genius? This droog Muñoz is here to stir things up. The old ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here….but it helps’ phrase comes to mind.
We may equally apply this, to some of us dining here....
The Folkestone Wine Company
The Fordwich Arms
Where The Light Gets In
The Mash Inn
Grand Trunk Road
The Laughing Heart
German Doner Kebab
Black Axe Mangal
House of Ho
One Leicester St
Duck & Waffle
10 Greek Street
Capote Y Toros
Pollen St Social