Firebird, London W1: ‘They’re about setting the rulebook alight’ – restaurant review

Firebird has landed on Poland Street in Soho. Although it’s not exactly Soho, but rather that point where it melds into the lower half of Oxford Street. This is where Hare Krishna parades weave past American breakfast cereal boutiques and where, if you stand long enough, the world and his dog will pass by on the way to buy a pair of Primark flip-flops. Soho itself is especially staggy and henny these days, so any attempt to reach Firebird via Piccadilly Circus means you’ll encounter at least three groups of Grand National jockeys and a silent disco walking tour twirling ebulliently to Europe’s The Final Countdown. Somewhere in the midst of all this chaos is Firebird, an elegant new restaurant opened by Madina Kazhimova and Anna Dolgushina, one of whom you will probably meet the moment you step into the calm, rather dark interior.

From the outset, the place feels personal and homespun, which is a rarity in London restaurants at the moment, because only the big, bolshie and slightly sterile openings seem to find the wings to fly. Firebird pushes itself as a restaurant and natural wine/biodynamic bar, but don’t let that deter you; they also offer drinks that aren’t Berocca-wee-orange or redolent of athlete’s foot. They were doing a charred pineapple daiquiri and a smoked bellini highball the night we were there, although Charles went for a potent toasted sesame sour.

If those cocktails sound as if they’ve been in contact with some sort of naked flame, you’re close to guessing the concept behind Firebird. Yes, fire. Almost everything on ex-Caravan head chef Nikos Kontongiannatos’ menu is “touched by flames”, having been cooked over charcoal or wood. I thought that might be something of an exaggeration, but, in Firebird’s case, it has legs. We ate at the sit-up bar (not the best seats in the house, but I’d booked rather late), so had a full view of the fire as whole grilled sea bass with acqua pazza headed for other tables. Then hunks of halloumi, charred and crisp on the sides, sticky and sweet in the centre, arrived glistening with honey and truffle, and I realised that Firebird was really rather good. In fact, it’s probably better than 90% of the places I have frittered my time on this year. The standard of cooking, matched with genuinely intriguing and appetising dishes, puts it right up there on my list of 2022’s important openings.

Take the choux bun filled with earthy, chicken-liver paté and hazelnut, a sort of bizarre, offally Paris-Brest. It sounds heinous, but it works. Or the tiger prawns in a heavenly, rich, white-wine-and-butter sauce – well, more like a soup, because there was so much of it. Glazed pork belly, from the mains, appeared with obvious evidence of the fire, with its crackling firm and its flesh still pink, and came armed with a warm potato salad and a blob of plum ketchup. For vegans, there was “primo cabbage”, charred but soft and yielding, with a good, punchy hazelnut romesco sauce. Never in all my years judging MasterChef has anyone served me scallops on a bed of buttery mash with truffle, but at Firebird they’re about setting the rulebook alight. The scallops were enormous, plump, soft and a little torched, as one might by now expect here.

By 8pm, Firebird was filled to the brim, and wannabe walk-ins were being batted off with charming diplomacy. Part of its magic lies in how they have an abundance of trained staff, all with an eye on your empty glass, missing fork or desire to see the dessert menu, a level of service that’s rarer than hen’s dentures right now. Each time my napkin was refolded, it felt like a cuddle. I was so excited by the short pudding list that we ordered both, as well as a banana baked old fashioned cocktail in celebration. That evening’s offerings included a pâte à choux filled with whipped cream, strawberries and chunks of honeycomb, littered with pistachio and drizzled with a puddle of honey: pure calorific art. The other option was a small, damp, slightly boozy chunk of coffee cake in a sticky, sweet sauce and liberally covered in praline cream and nuts. It was less pretty to look at, true, but it packed more of a punch. As much thought had been put into the sweet course as the starters and mains, which is almost an outdated concept in the capital these days.

This place is one to have up your sleeve for when you need a little class, kindness and sustenance in a postcode that, since restrictions lifted, has quickly shifted back to booze-fuelled party central. I’m a fan. Though my waistline could probably do without any more of those gorgeous, imaginative desserts, I’m like a plump-bottomed moth to Firebird’s flames.