Flesh and Buns is the latest venture from the folks behind Bone Daddies, the Soho ramen bar that sounds a bit like an inter-generational fetish night, and narrowly escapes style-over-substance by serving extraordinarily tasty food.
It’s another Japanese-ish concept joint; this time a kind of elevation of Tokyo drinking hole bar snacks. It’s a repackaged Izakaya with an inexplicable hentai twist, and a name that should really be warning enough. Like Bone Daddies, the food is tasty, but Flesh and Buns pings a good seven or eight milli-Polanskis on the Good-But-Problematic scale.
Flesh and Buns occupies a posedly-dingy basement off Seven Dials. The vaulted ceiling is low, the tables are packed in, and the centre of the room is occupied by one enormous raised bench. There’s low light, reclaimed wood, some kid with a Hawaiian shirt and a ratty little topknot – all the warning signs if you arrive predisposed to sneer. But I promise you I didn’t. I loved Bone Daddies, and the shtick here is grilled meat and bao. I love grilled meat, and I love those soft, fluffy, slightly sweet steamed buns. This ought to have been a hands-down winner, and barring a slightly fumbled ceviche, food-wise it was. The dining experience, however, can tongue my undercarriage.
The concept is that you pick something seared and hearty – say, duck, pork belly, or thick aubergine slices – it comes dressed and grilled and succulent, with a steamer of buns, an exciting sauce, maybe some pickles, and an appropriately cursory little dish of lettuce. You put the other stuff into the buns, you put the buns into your face. Grin like a loon, wipe your fingers, and repeat. Fucking tasty. There are sides and small bites, and a funky concept dessert where they bring you and enormous flaming brazier of charcoal, and you toast your own off-piste s’mores while Style and Substance trade barbs across the drawing room, neither quite gaining the upper hand.
We had duck, pork belly, and the Korean wings and ceviche. I’ll not dwell on the ceviche. It was too tart, too spicy, and could possibly have been fresher, but it was basically garnish, so I picked off the pickle and carried on with my life.
The wings, however, are sensational. It’s probably worth going just for the wings. Think Buffalo Wings, via Asia. Sticky and hot/sour, caked with sesame seeds, a little tomatoey-tamarindy something at the back. It’s a main course sized portion for six quid, and they’re excellent. The duck and pork, similarly, were fantastic, though far more into capital ‘D’ Dinner pricing. The pork is rich, fatty and succulent, served with lightly-pickled apple shavings and a piquant wasabi dressing. The duck is roasted down to fall-apart delight, with a standard plum sauce, and just-so crispy skin. It’s fast service, high quality. It’s good food.
It is also one of the worst dining experiences you could hope to have.
Flesh and Buns is full to approximately 1.25x a sensible capacity for the space. It is staffed by roughly 0.8x the number of waiters you need to serve those people to a tolerable standard.
The individual staff were lovely: polite, friendly, individually competent. Aggregated as a service system, it’s a fucking shambles. We waited over half an hour for someone to take our order. Others waited forlornly for bills. There was a mix up with our drinks that eventually left me with a surplus pint, brought over by a server so embarrassed and confused by it all that she declined to charge us. There just seemed to be too many diners for the staff to handle.
I blame that big central table.
Now, your mileage may vary, but shared dining space is the blight of my dalliance with trendy restaurants. Being shoved into a group of strangers feels like cruel and unusual punishment. But why not treat your diners like livestock? What price service when they’re queueing out the door because you’re so on-trend? Fuck ’em, they’ll lap it up, right? Let the market sort it out!
Fuck. Off. Seriously – stop it.
Eating like this often isn’t too bad. I have personal space issues that mean I end up sitting in silence and twitching a bit. The intrusion of other people’s conversations means I feel I can’t speak, and even if I could, can’t think in order to do so. But that’s me. Usually I can manage it. Usually, even the very hippest eateries are humane enough to pack the shared diners onto tables with enough space to eat in a rough approximation of comfort.
Not so Flesh and Buns. One of the reasons there are no pictures in this post is that I physically did not have space to get a phone out of my pocket. Eating was a manifest spatial challenge. The people on either side of us seemed pleasant enough, I guess. I couldn’t really tell. I was too busy staring straight ahead at my chop sticks, trying to bite down the panic attack.
I honestly didn’t think I could feel less respected as a customer without using a UK rail company.
Then I went to the gents.
The male gaze/ambient sexism stuff is well-rehearsed, and I don’t have much to add. Many of these images are at the grubby edges of objectification and subjection. I may not be all about the tits, but I’m not a prude. It’s not that sex is “inappropriate” for a restaurant (although it’s not what I’m personally after over dinner). It’s the attitude. It’s the utter lack of respect for women as, you know, actual people rather than compliant fungible sexmeat. It’s also the behind-the-hand “eyyy, LADS!” of shoving it in the gents. Women as blank tits, to look at while you piss. The grimy lack of respect wafts out under the cubicle doors and stinks up the place. If this is the mentality the design of Flesh and Buns presupposes its customers share, then I’m not surprised by the low background hum of indignity.
Look, the food is great. I might go back if they’ll allow something so achingly unhip as booking an individual table. But I’ll feel it’s deeply problematic to do so. It’s a horrible way to eat, all shouting and other people’s elbows. Whether or not you should check it out depends entirely on how much misogyny you’re willing to trade off against Korean hot wings, and if you’re a better person than me, it’ll be none.