Yesterday was Burns Night and while other London restaurants were honouring Scotland's favourite poet by shoehorning haggis into novelty burgers, Quo Vadis took a different approach. The iconic Soho restaurant teamed up with North London kebab joint Black Axe Mangal to throw a Burns Night dinner like no other.
Spoiler: when QV meets BAM, expect squid ink flatbread and pink meringue penises. But more on those later.
I'm in the upstairs members' club of Quo Vadis to meet head chef Jeremy Lee and Black Axe Mangal chef-owner Lee Tiernan before they head into the kitchen for tonight's dinner. They're already having a ball.
"Oh, there are trays and trays of pink penises flying around all over the place downstairs and meringue everywhere," Lee tells me. "I just stepped back and stumbled and fell and thought, 'Oh my God, I've actually got my arse covered in pink meringue.'"
He continues: "We're having a fantastic time. It's wave upon wave of hilarity."
Sniggering over, I ask the two chefs how they went about devising their Burns Night menu.
"We never really thought about Burns Night other than haggis, neeps, and tatties," explains Tiernan. "So we thought we'd do something completely left field as well as keeping some tradition."
Dundee-born Lee nods in agreement: "We were trying to think about what Burns Night is these days when everyone does the same thing. Everyone gets very giddy about Burns Night. It's the only date I know that has absolutely nothing attached to it whatsoever apart from fun, which is an amazing thing. And it's in January, when everyone needs some fun."
On cue, the lights in the bar dim.
"It's only just beginning, the night is yet young," Lee says with a smile.
As a round of drinks arrive ("Well, we may as well get things started the way we mean the evening to go on," reasons Lee, raising a glass of Campari soda), Tiernan tells me that tonight's first course is a BAM classic.
"We're doing the glittery squid ink flatbreads we do at the restaurant and topping them with preserved sea urchin and fish eggs, which we've never done before," he says. "The aim of the menu is also to do something you couldn't just come and get at my restaurant or Jeremy's restaurant on any given day."
Despite going off-piste with tonight's menu, the pair have honoured one tradition. Because what would January 25 be without sheep heart, liver, and lungs mushed up with oats and spices, and encased in stomach lining?
"Quo Vadis is offering up a little bowl of haggis, neeps, and tatties to keep the bard happy," says Lee. "We're not destroying all tradition."
Haggis isn't tonight's only nod to the Burns Nights of years gone by. Word on the street is that Lee's kilt will also be making an appearance.
"I can't wait to see Jeremy's kilt. I wasn't organised enough to get one in time," says Tiernan. "I might just see if I can get an apron, put it on backwards, and take my trousers off. It'll be like a leg-showing kilt! I'd have to get some sort of sporran. Is it an early man bag? That's going to be the next new thing. I'm going to start a range of sporran man bags."
Apron-sporran-man-bag chat aside, Tiernan talks me through the main course. "We're doing a bossam-like dish using the rest of the mutton," he explains. "The haggis uses all the innards and we're using all the prime cuts and all the braise-able bits and smoke-able bits. We're doing lettuce cups and lots of pickles and numbing spices. It should be fun."
I ask whether he's apprehensive about cooking a new menu in a kitchen that's not his own.
"I'm just glad to be in a kitchen that's bigger than the size of my whole restaurant!" laughs Tiernan. "Whenever you do a new dish, you always feel like it's only the second or third night when you really nail it, but I'm very confident in the ingredients that we're using. We make hundreds of the flatbreads every week at BAM and with the mutton, we're using cuts like the saddle and leg and melting over shrimp butter."
Momentarily distracted by the thought of the glittery carbs and slow-cooked meat, I ask Lee and Tiernan the question I've been dying to know the answer to since we sat down.
What are the meringues cocks all about?
They both burst into laughter.
"I did a dessert for the Gelinaz! Shuffle which was a rather abstract interpretation of the pink dicks and boobs that are sprayed all over the floor in my restaurant," says Tiernan. "We're doing a different interpretation of that dish for dessert tonight with penis-shaped meringue, Campari and grapefruit sorbet, and whipped cream."
Dick talk over, it's time for Tiernan and Lee to return to the kitchen. As they head back downstairs, Lee muses on the evening: "What you need in January is cheer, and fun to get you through the month. I think tonight is a beautiful balance of all that."
Lee's words ring in my ear all evening. From the whooping and clapping that greets the chef when he enters the room in his kilt, holding the the haggis aloft and flanked by a bagpiper, right through to my final sip of the roaring Flying Scotsman cocktail ("It's pretty much got all our favourite things in it—Scotch, red vermouth, and bitters—so it makes us very, very happy," says Lee). Delight is shared among friends and strangers in the sparkly flatbread and comforting haggis. Family-style bowls of lettuce leaves, glistening meat, and spicy pickles are passed around before a plate piled high with majestic meringue penises, cream, and sorbet (topped with a sparkler, of course) takes centre stage.
Lee's right: at the heart of Burns Night is fun. And I reckon tonight, old Rabbie would have been proud.
All photos by Dante Holdsworth.