Walking through Soho over the last six weeks has been pure joy. Here, one can observe, in real time, nature healing. As soon as outdoor dining was permitted, the temporarily pedestrianised streets exploded with people: elderly men in pinstripes sipping espresso; gaggles of girls on the prosecco; new dates and old dates digging into ramen; great bundles of friends knocking back beer and bao and pizza and wine. Everywhere, even in the rain, happy people in gazebos, filling their boots with being out again. They’re still out there now, despite the return of indoor dining: perhaps because most restaurants are booked up, perhaps in the belief that one can will the Great British Summer into existence through the power of Aperol Spritz.
Further evidence of nature healing is the swell of new restaurants, openings delayed perpetually by progressive lockdowns now finally bursting into life. Mr Ji had in fact already opened here on Old Compton Street in 2019 as a Taiwanese fried chicken takeaway. But during the pandemic closure, it rebranded in collaboration with Ana Gonçalves and Zijun Meng, the duo behind the ineffably cool itinerant restaurant TATA Eatery (whose iberico pork katsu sando spawned a phalanx of geometrically-pleasing imitations across London in 2019). Mr Ji is now a sit-down ‘modern Taiwanese eatery and bar’, with a menu centred around chicken. That sounds as though Mr Ji takes itself rather seriously – especially considering its Hip Bar aesthetic of distressed concrete walls, exposed induction pipes and Tate Modern-esque neon tube lights. West Coast hip hop and Chinese trap fusion blasts. Perhaps it’s a little too cool for 7.15pm on a Tuesday, with milky May evening light leaching through the windows and the airflow-generating open door?
But no: despite the cool, Mr Ji is fun. There is a dish on the ‘snacks’ section of braised chicken gizzards with smoked cream cheese that comes with a bag of Cool Doritos for dipping; another of prawn “in” toast, a take on Taiwanese coffin bread, in which a mini brioche is stuffed with bechamel, prawns and sweetcorn, tufts of parmesan strewn over the top. Taiwanese fried chicken breast arrives with a pair of scissors: highly practical, as it’s far easier to snip bits off a perfectly crunched and spiced chicken breast than it would be to slip and slide around with a knife. This is brilliantly inventive food that makes you smile, food that remind you of the unadulterated joy that eating out can bring.
It is also high-level drinking food: Mr Ji’s cocktails are clever and strong, with salted plum negronis (mostly mezcal and tequila, it turns out, smoothed by plum wine and Campari, and brain-wipingly good), rice martinis and boilermakers (a beer cocktail). The menu is one of predominantly fried things, with a flavour profile of salty, sweet, crunch, repeat, all elevated by precise, careful cooking. Like the sticky breadcrumb nugget of daikon, all slippery mulch inside and glistening garlic and soy slicked outer, or the chicken hearts, where deep-fried meat doubles as crouton, wrapped in a cool, crisp gem leaf, or the crinkle fries, scattered with Sichuan-fried scraps. The Sichuan burger is a glorious thing: more excellent fried chicken and salad in a cakey pineapple bun, a perfectly considered riot of texture and flavour. A green papaya salad brings cool, sour contrast and an additional smack of chilli to add to that of the burger and fries, causing a light sweat and calls for a Melon Fizz: pear eau de vie, buttermilk whey, condensed milk and cardamon, which has the floral ethereality of melon ice cream.
Mr Ji is a great restaurant, but it is still fast food: we are in and out in under an hour. But that seems right for Soho at this time of year, and indeed right now: an exhilarating pit stop before moving onto the next place to have another drink, hug another friend, check out another bar; or to slowly wander through the streets, people-watching and grinning at the sight of London opening for summer.
72 Old Compton St, London W1D 4UN
Meal for 2: £65