Beirut-born entrepreneur and artist Rami Fustok’s seductive restaurant at The Mandrake Hotel schools Rasika Sittamparam on new-age pleasures, with a nod to South America’s shamanism
You know you’re about to experience something unusual when you walk into a restaurant named after a hallucinogenic plant called yopo. Beirut-born entrepreneur Rami Fustok, who owns the restaurant and the psychedelic-themed The Mandrake Hotel next door, took the name to transport elements of the plant’s Venezuelan jungle roots straight to the heart of Fitzrovia. True to form, colourful orchids and exotic plants weave around manicured branches, artfully landscaping the restaurant front. Before stepping in, you’ll notice that you can enter the restaurant through the hotel’s front on Newman Street, where a stuffed ostrich guards its dungeon-like entrance.
Walk past YOPO’s gold-themed bar and its peach-orange walls and you’ll see illusory details dotted around – think snaking wooden figurines in spotlight and a magnificent taxidermy of an antelope masquerading as a peacock. Nature is somehow brought into one of the busiest corners of the West End, as you see a courtyard with jasmine creepers and orange blossoms hanging from wooden storeys above, which forms part of The Mandrake Hotel.
This we learn is a sculpture by Fustok’s mother Bushra Fakhoury, who is most known for her Dunamis piece in Park Lane.
A waitress in a bondage-style suit then appears, to lead my dining partner and me to a table facing the courtyard. A glance upwards at the ceiling reveals a green mural depicting jaguars, mysterious plants and snakes.
With our senses already high on the whimsical artworks, velvety fabrics and the trippy jazz music in the background, we place our orders enthusiastically. The first batch of starters arrive in quick succession: the Dorset rock oysters, a potato churro and the raw beef radish rolls. The radish and sesame seed-laden wrap provides a satisfying crunch as you bite through to its raw beef filling. Further chews intensify the flavours of this neat little parcel, with sweet notes from the shiso and chilli combination within. We enjoyed the oysters next, topped with Mezcal granita, which offered a pleasing sense of icy smokiness on the tongue.
With two cold starters out of the way, it was finally time to devour the spiral coffee-dusted golden churro with its creamy, bottarga-specked accompaniment. The softest, faintest crunch is heard upon my first bite, which symbolises the level of perfection its crafting has achieved. A dip into the salty-fatty cream turns this visually stunning dish into a standout player in the gourmet starter world. The tiniest hint of bitterness, supplied by the traces of coffee, somehow balances the overpowering taste of the bottarga specks to create a more wholesome bundle of flavours.
Next, a paradisaical plate of sea bass ceviche arrives, decorated by the greens and red tinges of nasturtium and a peach-hued orange and onion dressing. Each slurp adds on a satisfying sharpness and sweetness to the palate, fitting for the dazzling colours on display. The grilled line caught squid comes next, accompanied by the piquant Aji Amarillo sauce, lightly-charred peas and moreish lardo, to present a comforting and tasty few mouthfuls.
If flavours were well-packed in the tender squid dish, then the next dish is a platform for an uncontained, salty explosion. Such is the power of the Ortiz anchovy bites on sourdough oblongs, with a generous helping of snowy white pecorino filings on top. Cheese rarely goes with fish, I’ve been told before, but not even the South American gods could stop the winning union of anchovy and mature Italian cheese in my mouth – a shot of flavour that brings out the true roundedness of salt.
Energised by the aura and attitude of the starters, I welcome my terracotta-hued main with an open mind: charcoal grilled monkfish with smoked paprika and herb butter. I was impressed by how the overall smoky spices and herbs usurped the meaty and often bland flesh of the monkfish – higher powers and a skilled hand may have had a role to play here. After the saltiness of the anchovy, I found this dish to be slightly more benign, but I appreciated the crisp textures of its lightly charred exterior and accompanying cassava crisps.
The star of the night appeared to be a true underdog, which wasn’t included in the main, starter or the small plates, or even dessert (although the buckwheat date cake with smoked whiskey caramel was undoubtedly yummy) sections of YOPO’s menu. A surprisingly delicious vegetable side took the crown instead, with its blindingly shiny coating of caramel-like dark soy. An enormous cross section of an aubergine, with crispy buckwheat toppings and sea herbs provided us with an enchanting array of flavours – sweet, salty, umami, sour. We were amazed by the sorcery which made the dish feel and even taste like Japanese unagi, complete with the smooth dark soy-drenched skin and a melt-in-the mouth creamy flesh.
Culinary hedonism, through YOPO, has indeed reached mesmerising, new-age, heights in Fitzrovia, and every single morsel I tasted showcased that the restaurant is equally passionate about food as it is about often overlooked factors in fine dining, such as theatrics, atmosphere and play. Addicted, my partner and I vowed to return to see what else Rami Fustok has in store for the senses, especially as we exited through the dark corridors of The Mandrake Hotel. ‘Gong baths,’ a hotel guest dressed in green sequins whispers, before directing us back to the normality of Newman Street.
Rasika Sittamparam is senior researcher at Spear’s