KOL is a new and distinctive voice in London’s landscape of restaurants, and a shining example of Mexican cuisine. KOL’s Chef Patron, Santiago Lastra, has an encyclopedic knowledge of the food culture in Mexico – his country of origin – however, it is an expertise that has developed throughout his career, rather than his reason for entering the kitchen: “I had never even seen a cow until I was 19 years old and I’d moved to Spain – I had no idea where things came from, and it wasn’t until I started working with NOMA – when Rene Redzepi gave me the opportunity to [research and plan for NOMA Mexico] that I started to understand it all.”

Lastra’s approach to food, and to the restaurant experience more broadly, follows the same blend of precision, accuracy and attention as his Michelin-starred mentors, including Redzepi who has not only been a formative figure in Lastra’s own career, but a person of great influence on the global stage – shaping the conversation around food and rethinking conventions in cooking.

Tasked with the research, development, sourcing and logistics, Lastra worked alongside Redzepi for a year ahead of the launch of NOMA Mexico, a pop-up restaurant in the jungle of Tulum that opened in 2017 to great acclaim. By sourcing exceptional produce from across Mexico, Lastra gained a deep insight into his own country through the lens of its complex and varied cuisine. “It was amazing to be able to speak with the people who really understand Mexico – on a cultural and a gastronomic level – from chefs and researchers, to indigeonous people in different communities,” and it is this work – his study of Mexican produce and flavours, its community and history – that Lastra wished to continue at KOL.

Based in Marylebone, KOL is the culmination of Lastra’s research and culinary expertise. The interior feels equally as authentic and considered as the food; a place of sun-baked warmth in a city that is characteristically grey and wet. The influence of the Mexican architect, Luis Barragan, can be felt throughout – from the rich and chalky terracotta walls, painted in the exact shade of orange-brown that the designer personally favoured, to the hand-blown glass panels that bring luminosity and texture to the space. A marked difference to the clinical aesthetic that many high-end restaurants plump for, KOL is a distinctly tactile and welcoming alternative.

Raw concrete offers a contrast to the sunny yellows and deep oranges, and the restaurant is furnished in dark leather and wood – materials that don’t lose their gloss over time, but instead gain a patina. Accented with verdant palms and dried grasses, rattan and a mosaic artwork made of corn husks from the Mexican artist Fernando Laposse, the restaurant has an inviting glow that can be felt even from the street outside. Steadfastly avoiding a ‘theme’ – instead, Lastra’s Mexico is evoked in the atmosphere and colour palette, it is hinted at in the smallest of details. The thin hammered-brass light fittings have an uneven, dimpled surface that is reminiscent of the Mexican tortilla, with their soft rounded forms that gently curl and droop at the edges as they hang above the tables. Actual tortillas arrive at the table in circular leather pouches in a rich shade of brown, a tactile and decadent presentation for the most basic of Mexican foods.

Thoughtfully evoking Mexican cuisine rather than simply reproducing it, Lastra uses the best of British produce to reimagine authentic Mexican flavours: “My main goal is to highlight and promote the idea of Mexican culture and cuisine, but also to show that you can use all sorts of ingredients to create it.” KOL is Lastra’s opportunity to deconstruct Mexican cuisine, to uncover its most basic building blocks in order to reassemble it with a British slant, and he is enlivened by the challenge he has created for himself.

“Let’s try to find ways to adapt the flavours with something local”
– Santiago Lastra, KOL

Mexican food is uniquely adaptable, in fact, many of the country’s traditional dishes are the product of immigration and internationalism, and Mexico has such a large landmass that what is considered ‘local’ on one coast will be different on the other, with recipes and techniques that vary from community to community. “In the south they might make a certain type of sauce with mango; in the east they’d use plantain; in the north they’d use pears or olives. I wanted to reflect this in a restaurant in the UK, as if Britain was just another region of Mexico – using the local ingredients to create Mexican dishes.”

KOL’s take on the Lobster Taco – a west coast classic from Baja California – is an example of Lastra’s expert re-imaginings: grains grown in the north of England are made into a paper-thin sourdough bread that is lavished in duck fat, whilst British langoustines are grilled with a paste made from smoked chillies and a reduction of sea buckthorn – a sour berry that is native to the UK, which is both tart and sweet, making it the perfect substitute for tamarind. Finally, “The langoustine head is roasted and compressed with fresh sea buckthorn juice,” which is presented, still in its shell, alongside the taco – the idea being, “that you squeeze the head [over the dish] as if it was a piece of lime.”

HDG Photography

HDG Photography

HDG Photography

Lastra’s experimental approach is driven by his research, in fact, in the aftermath of NOMA Mexico, the chef wished to open a research facility rather than a restaurant. However, Lastra realised that it is possible to do more for the people and producers of Mexico, and the prestige and promotion of its food culture, through the food itself. “If you do 800 covers a week, then you need to buy food for 800 people, so then you are directly supporting the people that grow that food. And as a restaurant, from the crockery to the furniture to the food, there’s a lot of help you can give people.”

Fine dining has evolved since the haute cuisine of the 90s and 00s, which was characterised by luxury and excess, as much as the gels and foams that adorned each dish. KOL retains the same sense of refinement as London’s other fine establishments – yet it has a thoroughly Mexican sensibility that can be tasted in its flavours and appreciated in its design. Speaking of his time at NOMA Mexico, Lastra notes that he learned the meaning of quality from Rene Redzepi, for whom, “quality is something that is made with respect, not something that is rare. Ultimately, everything narrows down to craft and respect.” Lastra continues in his mentor’s footsteps, infusing care and respect into every element, and at every stage. The best of both worlds, KOL is an interpretation of European fine-dining through the lens of authentic Mexican cuisine, all of which can be washed down with a Mezcal – that most Mexican of spirits.

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