Some time ago, I read about Archipelago in a blog about the Top 10 unusual restaurants in London… I checked out the website and knew immediately it had to be added to my gastronomic bucket list for the sheer WTF novelty value! I like to consider myself fairly adventurous, but the thought of eating scorpions, locusts, etc is not something that I ever seriously considered before.
This restaurant probably has to go down as having the wackiest menu of them all (certainly in London at least), and invites you on a sensory dining journey amid the glow of golden Buddhas, dwarf palm trees and giant peacock feathers. The exotic menu includes a variety of bizarre dishes like crocodile, wildebeest, kangaroo, ostrich, zebra and bison featuring comfortably alongside standard classics like chicken and fish and an array of inventive vegetarian options. For the truly pioneering, they also have some really ‘out-there’ ingredients like chilli and garlic locusts and crickets, and chocolate covered scorpions. These are tactfully kept to optional side dishes! This ensures Archipelago’s offerings as London’s most unusual culinary portal to world cuisine.
They are keen to point out though that their aim is to broaden culinary knowledge and experience, to celebrate diversity, and to show that the unfamiliar can be exciting, delicious and very good for you. For example, kangaroo, crocodile, wildebeest and ostrich are extremely low in fat and cholesterol and therefore provide great alternatives to beef and lamb. All of their ingredients are organic, free range and are either farmed or are part of a nationally recognised culling programme; and they use nothing that has been irresponsibly taken from the wild.
Since I have been working in London, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to take advantage and go after work with my good friend Leila, one of the few people I know who would be adventurous and open minded enough to immerse herself fully into the experience with me.
On booking, we were asked to provide a password, I have only been asked to do this at 2 restaurants previously, both of them in London, and every time it makes me giggle. I cant remember what I gave them, but next time I intend o have fun with it and invent something silly or embarrassing for a giggle. If you have any suggestions-please add them in the comments section below!
I had read mixed reviews by food critics who seemed a little sneering at the novelty factor of the restaurant being gimmicky and the food quality being questionable, but I decided to go without expectations and to keep an open mind.
I arrived slightly early, and they offered to let me go downstairs to the drinks lounge by the kitchen. I am SO GLAD I did… If you are going to go yourself, I thoroughly recommend doing this as the setting is really lovely. It’s really a very small room, with a couple of tables and bench style seating around the perimeter of the room. There are no windows (as it’s a basement room) and the decor is decadent, a little kitsch and romantic with all kinds of eclectic travel paraphernalia from Africa, India, Thailand, East Asia, etc. This really does tie in with the theme for the whole restaurant brand as it’s menu is eclectic and diverse culturally too.
The drinks menu was a scroll of parchment that looked like it should have been a nautical treasure map, rolled into a leather scroll holder. Perhaps it was hoped that the excitement of opening it would soften the blow of the prices of the drinks menu. I ordered a strawberry blush (Fresh strawberries muddled with vodka, Grand Marnier and topped with ginger ginseng) which were £8.50 per drink for a martini glass, and whilst very nice, the price was a little off putting. Never mind, it was all about the experience, and to be honest, this ‘fuck-it’ attitude towards it being a one off type experience is the only reason they could have sold me three of those bad boys and one of the self-named ‘Archipelago’ cocktails (Bacardi, Tequila, Elderflower cordial, and organic lemonade)!
Leila arrived and was also suitably mesmerised with the imaginative decor of the place. There were only two other tables occupied when we went. This didn’t worry us, since we went at about 7:30pm on a Monday night just before the Olympics was kicking off.
The food menu was as thoughtfully presented as the drinks parchment, as it had been glued into the pages of an old leather bound book. We were given a shared amuse bouche dish prior to our starters coming out… We ordered as follows:
Both Starters were lovely, beautifully cooked, and tasty, but we both agreed the crocodile was the best starter, and the only criticism that I can find is that I would have liked more of it. I have eaten crocodile before, and loved it both times. It tastes a bit like a cross between chicken and fish, and has a plump, juicy texture to it. I thoroughly recommend trying it if you haven’t already!
The leaves were presented on top of the Bison steak, which was cut thin like minute steak and could be ordered: blue, rare or medium rare… This was medium rare option. It was very tasty, although I could have easily forgone the casava chips which were a little on the bland side.
This was a little on the tough side, but the flavour was very full and yummy and the water spinach and choi leaves were lovely
yes… Believe it or not, WE DID ACTUALLY EAT THIS! …Even Leila, who thought I was out of my mind for ordering it, and had gone a step too far, let me bully her into trying one of the locusts and crickets. The verdict from both of us, was that if you closed your eyes and had not seen it, we woul have had no clue what we were eating. They were toasted, but to be honest, just tasted like bits of burnt anything. I had expected the locust to be chewy, given that it’s little legs looked all tough and chewy, but there was nothing to them… When you bit into it, they were just dry and crunchy like crisps (potato chips)
The waiter told us that they have recently had the World Health Organisation speaking to them because they want to encourage more people to benefit from eating insects as they are a highly sustainable source of protein.
This turned out to be a chocolate cake (that looked suspiciously like a dog poo on a plate) with white chocolate and curry ice cream, a hot chocolate sauce and some raspberries. The waiter assured us that the curry worked with the chocolate in a wonderful and weird way. Neither Leila or I agreed sadly, and felt it was just weird in a not so tasty way… But hey, just our humble opinions. Perhaps you would love it?
To finish off, we ordered something called ‘A visit from the doctor’… The waiter would not elaborate much on what this involved, and explained in a rather mysterious fashion that it involved downing a large shot of a chosen spirit. Intrigued, we decided to bite the bullet and go with it.
When the waiter came to clear our desert plate, he announced to us rather dramatically that we were looking pretty sick, in fact, he even suggested we were ‘at death’s door’… He told us he would call the doctor immediately! …A few minutes later, he re-appeared with a doctor’s jacket on, a stethoscope around his neck, some weird contraption on his head (all doctor type garb) and a large leather chest which he placed on the table between us poignantly.
He opened the chest to reveal an array of decorative and ornate bottles filled with spirits and liqueurs. We could choose one of these as our ‘medicine’. He explained that each one was, all of the spirits contained other incredients like: vanilla pods, cocoa beans, etc… The one we chose was the most outrageous of all… Absinthe that was distilled for 12 years with a 1 year old python inside the bottle. It looked downright freaky, but in for a penny in for a pound!
He then called for the ‘nurse’ to bring a bowl of boiling water to the table, which he did. He offered us a capsule each from a little jar and told us not to eat them. Leila chose a green capsule and I chose a yellow one.
We were told to throw the capsules into the dish of boiling bater, count to three and down our medicine… 1…2…3 Bottoms up!! YUCK! Quite possibly the most revolting, firey, fluid I have ever swallowed. I’m so glad we shared and split the double measure between us, as I think a full double might well have made me ill or caused me to breathe fire! In fairness, Absinthe has never been my tipple of choice for this reason, so lets face it, the python probably never was going to make it taste like Archers or Pimms!
Still, it made us giggle, and I am glad I tried it with an open mind as it really did add to the fun, and you shouldn’t expect to like everything you ever try.
When we looked at the steaming bowl afterwards, the capsules had dissolved and little sponge creatures had popped out. Leila had a green snake, which apparently meant she was completely cured… I had a yellow gecko which apparently meant that I needed to take it easy and relax more.
We took a deep breath and ordered the bill, knowing it wouldn’t be cheap. The bill arrived in a little box clipped with a handmade ostrich pin. The waiter explained that the South African owner of the restaurant has these made by a homeless man in SA. These were a keepsake for all restaurant guests. The bill was fun to receive (despite the hefty price tag) listing all of your adventurous eats… They clipped it to a card as a keepsake, and also provided an extra copy for Leila when we asked.
It’s worth noting that the service charge is automatically added to the bill. Personally we didn’t mind, as we thought it was well deserved.
In summary… This is a brilliant experience, the food is honestly pretty good. For the food snobs out there, I’m sure you could find a more beautifully cooked meal in London for the price tag, but I doubt you would get anything to rival this ‘experience’ elsewhere in the UK. Is it gimmicky? …Possibly a little, but honestly-we both came out giggling, invigorated by the fun atmosphere and a few too many drinks and talking in an animated way about the experience. I therefore really cannot find fault with it on this basis.
We both agreed it would make an excellent 1st date venue for singletons too, especially since not all of the menu is as ‘wacky’ as the dishes we chose.
….So the question is… Would YOU try this place? Is there anything you WOULDN’T try?