High Street Kensington is a very, very nice part of London, but let’s face it, not the sort of place in which you would expect to find a restaurant doing something interesting or different. Shoreditch it is not. So it is not a place where I expected to find a restaurant presenting an interesting take on Latin American cuisine, specifically exotic and inventive Brazilian, Peruvian and Mexican tapas. But that is what Zuaya is doing, and High Street Ken is where it is doing it.
It also works better than I could have thought, leveraging the patronage of wealthy, international locals to offer somewhere both comforting and high-end, but also genuinely interesting. The owners, twin entrepreneurs Alberto and Arian Zandi, know what they are doing and how to create a great place.
The restaurant itself has a bar and ten or so tables on the ground floor, many more tables downstairs and a small outside terrace. It’s very beautiful with an exuberance of foliage that did remind me of Brazil – that feeling of being nestled by plants growing at a scale not often seen in these northerly climes. You might think of just a room with lots of plants, but it is so much better than that: zig-zag flooring by the bar as they do on the promenades in Rio, shimmering light shades, deeply polished brass and gold fittings, thick old wooden floorboards in the restaurant area, lovely velvet chairs to sink into and tablecloths (in a restaurant, god it’s nice to see them back). It’s a very well-thought-out use of the space and feels luxurious without being formal or starched, and the kind of place that you think could do with a resident DJ late at night. Which is lucky because that’s exactly what they do several times a week.
Then having been put in the right mood for the food, will it live up to the venue? We started with cheese and honey croquetas. Now pairing honey with cheese is well established, and at home I do it with everything from gorgonzola to pecorino. But it had not occurred to me to do the same thing with a croqueta. My mistake. They are utterly delicious deep-fried balls of cheese, I think with a bechamel, which comes alive with honey dripped onto them. To say moreish does not come close, they are a one-way escalator to a heart attack, but worth every bite. Do not come here and fail to order them.
Then a great tuna and avocado taco. Always a useful dish to test how good the ingredients, and here it was top-notch. Fresh, singing tuna and firm but ripe avocado, but in a taco rather than a salad. The taco itself was soft and lovely, the perfect foil for the fish. Once again, I could eat a lot of these in a very short time. The chorizo and provolone empanadas followed and were good, albeit for me there is only so good you can get with an empanada, even with this great and unusual choice of ingredients.
Of the larger dishes, we tried Argentinian sirloin with fresh chimichurri on the side – top-quality meat, as you would expect, grilled with care, a rugged crust surrounding a deep red centre, and an expertly mixed chimichurri. The fried calamari with lime mayo and crispy fried king prawns were fantastic and reminded us that if you don’t want to try something unusual here they are capable of serving up great comfort food to a level that you won’t find in a lot of restaurants.
Desserts were an explosion of Latin American flavour: a tangy passionfruit crème brulee positively exploding with flavour and a cheesecake that was epic and epically damaging to the waistline, but then again it would be rude not to….
Add to all of this bar staff who can mix a proper martini (and I’m sick of how many places simply cannot) and waiting staff who just don’t stop smiling. What a great place. If I lived locally I’d be here all the time, and even from the far-off wilds of Soho I will be heading back here pretty soon. You should do the same.