A Brewer Street Institution
A warm Soho welcome and the best cod in London awaits diners heading to Randall & Aubin
Review by Donald B. McFarlane
Peterhead is the easternmost major fishing town in Scotland and the source of the best cod being served in London right now – at Randall & Aubin. Since the late 1500’s, Peterhead has been a mecca of fishing and where their splendiferous cod is brought to land for Ed Baines’ Soho institution. Located on the eastern end of Brewer Street for the past 20 years, I’d walked past it several times in the decade I’ve been in London and previously dined there on one occasion.
Push in the front door though, mind your step, and you’re immediately transported out of London to some other place and time – perhaps Paris, in-between the wars – with a twist. There is a buzz of activity to your front left where the staff go about their business, whilst diners dined to my right. R&A isn’t a big space, but it is a warm environment with a splash of a clubby vibe.
There are spaces to sit at countertops around the periphery of the interior and along the front window and some high tables mixed in to make the most of the space. There are old photographs, menus and other historical pieces splattered indiscriminately everywhere, and it looks great. For a space that used to be run by French butchers as far back as 1908, it succeeds in maintaining a slightly rustic charm whilst exuding elegance and sophistication.
After a few moments staring at the menu with no clue as to how to proceed, owner/chef Ed Baines arrives at my counter-top spot with his chef’s smock on, and a look of excitement on his face. Ed is without a doubt a man that cuts to the chase and pulls no punches. When the head waiter arrives, Ed places my order for me and we get into some of the basics about Randall & Aubin.
Two hundred and twenty covers a day, third regulars, third Brits and a third tourists. Soho is going in the right direction, compared to what it used to be, he insists; things have only continued to improve since the 2012 Olympics when all the rough types were pushed out and extra police presence brought hordes of tourists in. Soho, and many of its loyal haunts is on the up and up.
After a little for light chat about Soho, and what it used to be like, we then make our way to Ed’s story. Born in west London he apprenticed at the Dorchester and spent time in France working on yachts on the Mediterranean. Monaco and the Gold Coast in Australia for two years followed before he returned to the UK – which he found to be prehistoric after to his experiences abroad.
Ed wrangled himself a job at the River Café as a sous chef. After that is was opening cafes for the Armani group then in 1992 he landed himself a spot as Head Chef at Daphne’s in Chelsea. He remembers that it was the international staff that he unleashed to do what they were best at that allowed Daphne’s to be the spectacular success that it was during his tenure. Ed realized that the only real way forward for him professionally was to have his own restaurant. Something he could shape and mould into the world beater he had always dreamed of.
Twenty years ago, Soho was a different place, but it was perfect for Ed. His mantra was simple: take good ingredients, cook them well. Easy. Add that to a cool atmosphere where you have cool staff, and you have two of the keys to the success that R&A has enjoyed. Ed uses lots of suppliers because it requires specialists to provide the quality ingredients he needs. Unlike other venues in a similar price range, he refuses to use central production in his cooking. It results in a lousy product, and it is a result of the owners just being too damn greedy for profits, at the expense of the patrons. Ed believes that there are only two types of restaurants that succeed in London: those that are £35 plus per head and kebab shops. He knew where he was aiming, and compromise wasn’t an option.
One of the areas that Ed has paid particular attention is where his ingredients are sourced. Crab from the Channel, Langoustine from Scotland, Lobster from Cornwall. Chickens that can run around in the woods for a year before being slotted. Trips to Scotland to watch the fishing boats tackle the North Sea and beyond. ‘Cod comes down on the train from Jimmy in Scotland.’ Or so I’ve been told.
2017 is going to be an exciting year for Randall & Aubin. A second restaurant is being opened in Manchester in April, with Ed’s eye already focused on details and future quality control. He knows he can’t be in two kitchens at the same time. Quite aware that Manchester isn’t London, and will require a slightly different touch, Ed knows that if the food is on par with what his Soho kitchen produces, the diners will come. “Smells take you places.” And he’s right. The smell of the cosy restaurant matches the warmth and splendour of the food, and if that can be replicated elsewhere, victory is assured.
Enquiries: Randall & Aubin, 14 – 16 Brewer Street, Soho, London W1F 0SG / 0207 2874447 / www.randallandaubin.com/