“So are there strippers by the table? Isn’t that distracting?”
Mention that you’re dining at The Playboy Club and it’s amazing the responses you get. Well, to be fair, the same response, phrased several different ways, from people who should know better, all assuming that The Playboy Club is a lap dancing establishment.
The reality is, of course, very different. Yes, the Playboy empire was built on a magazine in which beautiful women show their intimate bits for the reader’s viewing pleasure. However, in much the same way that men argued – and ladies, prepare your sneers now – that they bought the magazine for the articles, the Playboy Club has many things to recommend it aside from the famous Bunnies who, for the record, remain covered up and who, for the record, show less flesh than you’d see in any number of other bars, restaurants, tube carriages, London streets, etc.
Morality debate aside, there is – cliché klaxon – a real sense of Mad Men-esque glamour to the place. It’s oddly innocent, utterly charming, astonishingly efficient and remarkably soothing: everything you want from a members club, in fact. Even accepting such positives doesn’t begin to prepare you for The Dining Room though which, under Judy Joo’s guidance, is quite simply glorious. The current vogue for American fare is everywhere but, at this point, nobody else in the UK is doing it this well.
American-born to Korean parents, Joo combines both cultural influences to tremendous effect, either on their own or as cross-cultural platefuls. There’s a confidence to her cooking – as you’d expect from someone who won Iron Chef – and that cuts both ways. When things can take big flavours, they get big flavours: you might fear that a seriously punchy jalapeno and shallot salsa would pummel Tuna Sashimi into submission but, frankly, you’d be proven wrong. When things should be left alone, they’re left alone and, as evinced by half a dozen fat, juicy and just plain excellent Mersea oysters, she also knows how to source. And when it comes to throwing down against the big boys like Momofuku, Chef Joo can mix it up. I’ve had David Chang’s legendary pork buns. Joo’s are better. As in miles better. As in oh-dear-god-can-I-justify-another-order-of-these-before-the-main-course better.
They’re rich, fatty, gleefully greasy, spicy as hell – the sauce is a work of genius – and would have been the stand out, if it wasn’t for… the burger.
Oi. Stop yawning at the back. Yes, burgers have been done to death in the capital of late and no, it doesn’t look like slowing down any time soon. But when you bite into one this good, you can understand the obsession. It’s handheld perfection, from the meat – slight crust, soft, pink innards and knockout beefiness – to the slightly sweet, perfectly absorbent brioche bun. The other side of the table went similarly straightforward, with a board of Aberdeen Angus fillet, Wagyu rump and USDA ribeye. Rah. Sides – a truffle and cep mac n cheese and Chilli Cheese Disco Fries – were typical of the current London obsession with dirty food pleasures but, once again, superior to anything else out there, the Disco Fries in particular.
They’re a shameless celebration of filthiness: fries, chipotle-heavy chilli, pickled jalapenos, cheese and sour cream. Oh, and chives which clearly help make this one of your five a day. Ahem. What kicks this into the stratosphere though is a healthy (ha) squirt of the pork bun sauce: lurid red, packed with ginger and garlic and just the right side of eye-watering heat. If I’m ever on Death Row, these fries will be my final meal. Ideally delivered by one of the staff here. No, not in that way, we’ve already cleared that up. Edita, and the rest of the front of house staff, are: a) formally dressed and; b) simply superb.
Wines are interesting and surprising value, and cocktails are, as you’d expect from a bar run by Salvatore Calabrese, faultless. Desserts looked good but with an inability to resist the Disco Fries and the mac n cheese, look was all we could do so cynics, you can insert your own “look but don’t touch” gag here.
Those seeking smut and cheap thrills, look elsewhere. Those looking for comfort eating and the best cooking of this ilk in the country, well, you know where to go.
The Dining Room
Playboy Club London
14 Old Park Lane
London W1K 1ND