Food memories, like normal memories, are recalled more vividly when entwined with trauma. The most extreme, or at least memorable, times I’ve had with food have involved getting very, very sick somewhere very, very public. The reverse fun of a too-bloody barbecue in a service station bathroom. Those prawns on that boat that one time. A nearly instantaneous poisoning by the full moon of a taco in Mexico’s blistering heat.
Thus far, I’ve taken my un-traumatic food experiences for granted. I’ve wined and dined and swiftly moved on. I have forgotten the simple pleasure of eating, drinking, and being relatively merry without pause. Of repeat breakfasts that hit the spot, of lunches where the stakes never raise above two minutes late for my next meeting, of dinners tinkled lightly in low-key notes in piano, of drinks that gently ease themselves into the wee hours.
In a world of bowleries and oat milk and Veganuaries, I yearn for something less new-fangled, more classic. In a world where people are orthorexic, grass-fed, and pallid, I want vitality. In a world where there are simply too many things bleeding while pretending to be meat, I’m searching for something with gristle. Not a total recall — not a white room, a white shirt, a white meal — but a reduction in noise that doesn’t feel like a total sabbatical from who I actually am.
Who I am, incidentally, is a man with a big mouth. And a big mouth needs big flavours. It doesn’t need julienne. It doesn’t need pointless landfill garnishes. It needs bite and sustenance and maybe a Martini — cold as ice, willing to sacrifice — on a Wednesday. City life is an assault course, and when my thumbs are tired from texting, when my mouth is bone dry from vitamin supplements, and when my feet are sore from ducking into McDonalds for a luminous Berocca wee, it’s not respite I crave. I simply want a line break.
And so (finally!) to Brasserie Zedel, a bunker of decadence six feet below the upper mantle of Piccadilly Circus. My luxurious abseil into the subterranean Piccadillian eatery is never anxious, the anticipation never fraught. Partially that’s because I’ve been here more times than I’d care to admit, partially because, in all honesty, I’ve never actually been anxious to go to lunch. Repeat restaurant visits are the key to an easy time: there’s nothing new to spanner your works. There’s a little snag in the rep-eating because you can feel like an unimaginative diner, like a tourist with a sad little list and no imagination, but familiarity outweighs pretence when you’re hungry.
There’s enough marble to refit Scarface’s holiday home, and enough gold to make a pirate cum in his pants.
The Zedel room is so familiar to me I can almost forget its gilded majesty until I’m walking in again with a rumble in my stomach. I guess it’s Art Deco — there’s a frieze of a blimp — but I’m certain it hasn’t been here that long. There is grandeur. There is pomp. There’s enough marble to refit Scarface’s holiday home, and enough gold to make a pirate cum in his pants. Everything is shiny, but not in a polyester way. I heard a rumour that the dining room design is based on the HMS Titanic’s, but I also have a wee sense I personally started that rumour after a couple of Wednesday Martinis. I would love the life of chronic (if not doomed) opulence that the mise en scene denotes, but the lifestyle always comes with a side order of gout. I haven’t really read into gout for fear of an eerie familiarity to the symptoms, but my gut tells me it’s a diet where your extremities calcify into blue cheese, and your flesh has the texture of rum baba.
We all know how good France is at food (the French fry is case and point) and Zedel serves all the classics. I see plated wreaths of snails, the knitted thatched roof on a French onion soup, Jackson Pollocks of peppercorn sauce waiting to be mopped. People talk of the affordability of Zedel, but the meaning of value itself is questionable in a town where you can splash the equivalent of a nurse’s salary on steak frites. For many, Zedel won’t break the bank. The much-lauded prix fixe (three courses at £16) is a modern miracle in the middle of sodding London.
Overlooking the shredded celeriac (which looks like anaemic brain) I order the omelette with fresh herbs, prix fixe be damned. After centuries of humans fannying around, of refinement, of reduction and velouté, I’m reminded of the simplicity of an omelette and fresh herbs without fuss. No additives. No substitutes. No faff. Just a couple of eggs cooked and folded at the perfect time. I can obviously make this at home, so it is the ultimate in decadence to drop a tenner on three eggs in a sunken marble room. To even things up, I get a basket piled high with clippings of arms-length baguette, and a green salad because you have to.
A lot has been already written about Zedel, other people making their own way through the menus and out into new habits. I wonder if, with each forkful of omelette, I’m transported back to the omelettes of before? A family tree of eating that has led me to today? But I can’t tell you about the past, only of me and the eggs and London marking onward somewhere above. To be honest, it’s never the wrong occasion for a night at the brasserie. You could find yourself next to an (albeit rather chic) hen do, or a 50th birthday, or a quiet couple that actually live in Soho (incredibly rare!). It’d be easy to get distracted by the populous, by the tourists and seasoned locals. But I order and the clientele doesn’t exist, they disappear. The food arrives and I’m once-again smitten: With my stupid rituals and my stupid city.
I love a neighbourhood joint, but I swear this is the very epicentre of London, that I’m dining right in the middle of the middle, that the Google maps pin pierces the ceiling but the waiters don’t flinch. This is the beating heart of the city. Zedel is relaxed, but not relaxing. It is not a spa treatment or a toke on a California vape. It’s never quiet, never a full refuge from the city above, never exactly a retreat from the jostling, the exhausting London-ing. But it’s always a change in tone, an ebbing refinement of the shoulder-to-shouldering. And every so often, when the city gets a touch too much, you’ll find me hunkered underground. Just me and an omelette.
Raven Smith is a cultural commentator and columnist at Vogue. Follow him on Instagram here. Follow Resy, too.