5 Kensington High St, Kensington, London W8 5BA
Zuaya, a Latin American restaurant tucked inside a sinew linking Kensington High Street to Kensington Court, promised to be something different from the insipid Europhile cuisine synonymous with the Royal Borough. The new chef, Francisco Lafee, whose glittering CV extends from London’s Barrafina to El Celler de Can Roca (twice named world’s best restaurant) in Catalonia, created a menu drawing on Peruvian, Mexican, Brazilian and Argentinian dishes. For two placid Englanders, the meal proved to be a culinary awakening to the delights of Latin American cuisine.
The restaurant breaks into two floors with an outdoor terrace. Inside, the ceiling and walls are shrouded in dense foliage making the space feel distinguished, if not contained, from the dour concrete paving outside. The green marble bar is a funky adjunct to the floor’s zebra-style tiling and blanch décor. Here, my guest and I treated ourselves to an espresso martini apiece.
It was early evening and, in keeping with a healthy circadian rhythm, my dining companion and I elected to sit outside. As is often the case with sharing-style restaurants, the menu was difficult to decipher insofar as quantities were concerned: starter plates, small plates, large plates, ceviches, tacos, robata grill and stews all feature in this merciless sorting system that exposes the rank amateurs from the cultured epicures. Fortunately, our waiter was on desk to translate these plates into portions fitting for two placid Englanders and we readily deferred to all his recommendations.
Our starters arrived in a three-tier bird cage with one plate on each level. We were advised to begin with the Zuaya Signature, Ceviche a la Brassa (£29), a dish for two, at the bottom of the cage. We worked our way up past the Mango Tiradito, a Peruvian dish of raw fish doused in Mango sauce, until we reached another ceviche, a fresh sea bream with red onion, Peruvian corn and sweet potato ice-cream (£12) at the top. Beyond their exquisite presentation, each dish was pressed with a remarkable and, though the phrase is fast-becoming trite in culinary vernacular, fusion of flavours. Moreover, the combination of tiger’s milk and tropical fruits on the ceviche dishes added to their exotic splendour.
Thereafter, we delved into the Dragon Red Mullet (£31) from the robata grill. The red mullet, grilled in a Nikkei curry sauce, offered a unique expression of Japanese and Peruvian cuisines woven together. It was clear from this meal that the two sea-faring nations were destined to be culinary soulmates long before Japanese citizens crossed into Peruvian shores. Although red mullet is a technically a white fish, its flavour is much stronger, which was ably brought to life by the Nikkei sauce.
For pudding, my guest and I opted for the Quindim (£8) and Dulce de Leche (£9). Quindim is a popular Brazilian desert that is baked using sugar egg yolks and ground coconut. Zuaya’s Quindim also came with a coconut sorbet and a coconut meringue on top, all of which was excellent. The Dulce de Leche, however, was certainly more eye-catching. In this dish, the fresh milk ice cream was given a pink wig of Iranian candy floss a la Sideshow Bob, which left us with such a sugar high that post-meal espressos totally lost their allure.
The cost of Zuaya is quite dear, but it is a refreshing addition to an otherwise banal high street of restaurants. LaFee has chosen to take some risks in this menu and for that, the chef should be commended. A friendly and attentive waiting staff should sweeten the deal too.