ccording to Slavic folklore, the Firebird is a mystical glowing bird with magical feathers and jewel-like eyes. Representing a rare and complex treasure, the mythical creature is considered both a blessing and a harbinger of doom to whomever possesses it. Let’s hope then that it’s the former for Anna Dolgushina and Madina Kazhimova, the St Petersburg restauranteurs behind Soho’s newest open-flame restaurant and wine bar. As its name suggests, the focus here is on the fire, of which the restaurant has two – an open wood fire and a charcoal grill – with each and every dish touched by flames at some point during their journey to your table.
Open-fire cooking is having something of a moment in the capital, as a new generation of restauranteurs eschew Blumenthal-style molecular gastronomy in favour of something a little more trad, enticed by the fullness of flavour that a wood fire brings. This is not to be mistaken for your dad’s summer BBQ; there is a real sophistication to the technique. The River Cafe has been doing this for decades, roasting everything from sea bass with artichokes to veal chops and thin-crust pizza; while in Shoreditch, Smokestak brings fire-pit cooking to the masses with its take on American-style barbecue.
Closer to home for Firebird, Neil Rankin’s Temper – which opened on Broadwick Street in 2016 – places its open-fire kitchen at the centre of its dining room so guests can look on as their burnt squash and smoked bone marrow is prepared. And then there’s Kiln, the Thai-inspired grill that sits on Brewer Street, serving up everything from clay-pot-baked glass noodles to slow-grilled red mullet. Now, Firebird is the latest addition to the crowd.
A testament to the versatility of this kind of cooking, Firebird does not restrict itself merely to grilled meats and burnt veg. Inspired by his Greek heritage, Head Chef Nikos Kontongiannatos (previously of Caravan) has devised a small, yet accomplished, menu of Meditteranean-influenced dishes, from charred peaches with ricotta and coriander, to scallops accompanied by truffle mashed potatoes and flame-roasted duck breast with an apricot mostarda and granola. Elsewhere, behind the bar, sommelier Anna Dolgushina has curated a fine selection of wines championing small producers around Europe – including an impressive array of skin-contact bottles (that is, a white wine that has become a golden amber colour due to the grape juice being left to macerate for much longer, like a red) – particularly those with an interesting tale to tell.
The heavens opened the second I stepped out of Oxford Circus station, so it was with great relief when, following a mad-dash to Poland Street, handbag held over my head in place of an umbrella, I was welcomed into the veritable sliver of summer that is Firebird, its front window thrown wide-open in defiance of the rainy evening.
Led past the intimate counter seating that allows diners a full view of the hustle and bustle behind the bar as chefs tend to the roaring, open fire, we were shown into a rustic Mediterranean terrace, warm and leafy with terracotta floors, amber beams and stripped-back concrete walls, all illuminated by soft candlelight. The scent of a wood fire hung in the air, Mediterranean-influenced acoustic music adding to the atmosphere.
Staff, dressed in white lab coats embroidered at the breast with the Firebird emblem, were polite and attentive, without straying into the over-familiar. Well-versed in the menu, they were forthcoming with their recommendations, which hit the nail on the head. We kicked things off with the sweet-but-smoky strawberry mezcal Negroni (Campari, mezcal, Aperol, fernet branca and strawberry) and refreshing bergamot spritz (bergamot liqueur, white vermouth and sparkling wine), both of which are unfussy, but pack a punch.
You’ll find no heaping portions here, but therein lies the beauty. Guests are encouraged to choose a selection of small plates for each course – of which there are four in total if you count the snacks (I do) – in order to enjoy the full scope of what open-flame cooking can accomplish. Our meal began with a modest serving of sourdough focaccia with tomatoes, warmed gently on the grill, and spicy Bloody Mary corn ribs, both of which hinted at what would follow.
The real hero of this sharing ‘snack’ course was the chicken liver paté choux buns, which I almost passed over due to a compulsive and childlike distaste for anything even remotely offal-related. How wrong I was. Served with crunchy hazelnuts and sweet raisins, these smoky, savoury pastries stayed with me long after I’d boarded the tube home. As my companion scolded me: “don't’ sleep on these.” Really, you won’t regret it.
Appetites whetted, we moved on to starters. We quickly devoured the warm, flame-grilled halloumi, decadently topped with sliced plum, truffle and Greek honey – again, not a combination one would necessarily expect, but intoxicating in its simplicity and expertly executed. Next up were the whole tiger prawns in a buttery white wine sauce. Delightfully light in texture, they melted immediately on the tongue, leaving behind the tang of the flames that cooked them. If you go for the focaccia to begin your meal, I’d recommend saving a piece with which to mop up the rich butter sauce. We neglected to and were full of remorse.
Then came the main event, accompanied by a golden glass of Archil Guniava, an orange wine of Georgian origin which danced lightly on the tongue. Blackened pork belly, imbued with the rich smokiness of the grill, was served with a sweet plum jam and tangy potato and onion salad, surprisingly acerbic but nonetheless delectable.
The charred chicken breast was another hit. Served with a sticky bacon jam (which I would happily eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner – seriously, it’s that good), delicate oyster mushroom and a thrice-cooked garlic reduction with port, the dish was somehow both light and rich, again erupting with a hazy smokiness, unachievable by any other means than cooking over fire.
We opted to share dessert: an airy éclair filled with whipped honeycomb cream and fresh strawberries, sprinkled with chopped pistachios and drizzled with Greek honey. Fluffy and sweet, it made for the ideal finishing touch – rich enough to feel as though you’ve had your fill, but light without lacking substance. I could have eaten it twice.
Ultimately, despite the swaths of similarly-minded open-fire restaurants throughout London, Firebird manages to remain original. Its considered fusion of Mediterranean and central European influences speaks to the diversity of Greece, while the restaurant’s simple concept and fire-fuelled flavours showcase the talents of its team. The Firebird has worked its magic, let’s see if it flies.
Firebird, 29 Poland Street, W1F 8QR. Visit instagram.com/firebird.london