For decades Randall & Aubin stood out on Brewer Street, a throwback to the days when Bohos actually lived in Soho. Eighteenth and nineteenth century refugees from the intolerance of Europe stayed there too and, if Dickens may be relied upon in A Tale of Two Cities, dissolute patriots. Sydney Carton for one wrapped his head with cold towels to churn out briefs in his squalid lodging over a Soho street.
Randall & Aubin once was an elegant butcher that catered to the relatively sophisticated palates of those cosmopolitan denizens of one of the more colorful, sleazier and best corners of London. If inhabitants there are now light on the ground, or more accurately scarce above restaurants, strip clubs and shops, the color and sleaze still beckon.
In Frith Street you can stay at the eighteenth century row houses of Hazlitt’s for (a little) less than a ransom, drink in the tiny tiled wonderland of the Dog & Duck (where the largely foreign and incomprehensible staff can be a bunch of shits but the beer is impeccable), grab a Portuguese (or Italian, Thai or Modern English repast) and still catch some jazz (if no longer, alas, the incomparable Melly) at Ronny Scott’s.
You cannot, however, purchase either meat or the delicacies that they also used to stock at Randall & Aubin. Sixteen years ago it became a restaurant that specializes in fish (a thumb in the eye to the ethnic or at least genetic memory of the space) and brags about its oysters. It is a good setting in which to eat them.
All the tables are high tops, and if there is no oyster bar per se, they are evocative of one. A big box of cold shellfish stands behind one of the three big windows, beckoning you within, and the proprietors were prudent enough not to alter the butchery décor of tiles and iron. The old shop is small but somehow the open kitchen, vertical gas spits and all, manages to enchant rather than intrude; it should be a convivial space with, however, a couple of incongruous oddities. There is a mirrored disco ball that seems utterly gratuitous and an intrusive soundtrack of mediocre Europop.
Some of Randall & Aubin’s promotional materials describe the place as a ‘Champagne & Oyster Bar,’ and while they do serve both items, neither in fact dominates the menu. They offer only a few bottles and the selection of oysters is small. There are three or four varieties on any given day and they do not change much; the house oysters (rock of course) ‘fines de Claire;’ natives, but only sometimes; and an ‘oyster of the month.’ So limited a selection would be an embarrassment to any American boite that billed itself an oyster bar, but to be fair the limitation is not particularly unusual in London.
During our visit no natives in stock, the origin of the house oysters a mystery and that of the monthly selection very nearly so. The reticent shucker had no idea where they came from and the head line chef mumbled something nearly incomprehensible about Scotland and a shire. Wherever they came from they too were rock oysters and if not bad then hardly distinguished.
They, and everything else on the menu, were overpriced. Randall & Aubin also charges an extortionate cover of one pound fifty per person for a couple of olives and a bit of bread whether you want them or not; we did not. Olives and oysters, you see, are not best friends.
The worst thing about the place, however, is the attitude; the staff seems intent on ensuring that nobody has too good a time. Shucker and chef ought to visit New Orleans, where they might learn that the capacity for banter should, for a shucker, be as indispensible as his knife (no letters please; in our experience, all of them are indeed men).
We could not decide whether everybody else was overserious or simply dour; they were not unkind, but the atmosphere is reminiscent of dining in France, where reverence for the food can trump the enjoyment of it. The selection of beers, four nondescript bottles of lager, is risible for an English oyster bar; there is not even stout for making Black Velvet, as traditional there with oysters as mignonette.
Randall & Aubin describes Ed Baines as its ‘Patron Chef,’ whatever that means. He is not much in evidence at the restaurant. Baines actually spends his time as a television personality on BBC food shows and, the restaurant also tells us, has been an ‘official Armani chef,’ whatever that entails, and ‘even’ has dabbled in modeling. Hubba. Hubba. Oysters do not feature in his unoriginal but glossy cookbook, The Best of British, which has more pictures than recipes. You get the idea.