You look towards the entrance of Freakscene and feel a little underwhelmed at the fact it is not Barrafina. The memorable maroon shades now gone, people sitting underneath them at tables outside, enjoying dazzling tapas, others indoors doing the same amidst the loud cacophony of conversation and the noise of busy, flamboyant Spanish chefs working behind the bar. No more.
The space that was once home to the best tapas bar in London has now been effaced, split, and given over to Freakscene, a new restaurant with its own story to tell. The ostensible finesse of Barrafina has been replaced by something utterly different: a colourful assault of posters from Japanese and American pop cultures, the faces of the infamous N.W.A alongside portraits of women in kimonos and Disney chipmunks.
Sake bottles and bamboo baskets also line upper shelves, with potted plants added on, to make things a little more tropical. As you can probably infer, Freakscene has a lot of things going on, but somehow manages to revel in this palpable hodgepodge. I look around and realise that they’ve still kept the same L-shaped bar from Barrafina (albeit cut short) and the long mirror by the wall, the last vestiges that add recognisable poise to a décor that seems verge on the kitsch.
Freakscene, what a peculiar name for a Southeast Asian restaurant. It sounded more to me like a mosh cave nightclub, a kinky sex shop, or a kitchen where my father would set up and cook whatever was in the fridge and larder on that particular day. Each of these has its place and time, but that particular afternoon I was praying for anything but…
I took a seat just opposite the fast moving, meticulous chef working behind the bar. He was the only one cooking, a stark change from the hubbub of the kitchen that came before. His name is Scott Hallsworth, an accomplished chef hailing from Australia, who worked at Nobu, the spectacular Kurobuta, and now plies his trade solitarily at Freakscene. He moves smoothly from station to station tasting, tossing, placing and lashing, movements etched with practiced precision making note of the orders as they came in.
Incredible smells emanated from pans sizzling behind him as he plated: the melting fat of pork belly, the pungency of an opened container of pickles, the murky sweetness of thick peanut sauce, and number of other bits and bobs that made their entrances and exits. Scott seemed completely in the zone as I watched him, head down until he placed his dish before you and explained what was on it.
The menu here is small and manageable for a single chef but also demonstrates effectively the character of Scott’s cuisine. You’ve got Thai classics in the beef rendang, Chinese in his take on hoisin pork belly, and a slew of Japanese inspired dishes from sashimis to tempuras, all touched with the chef’s unique mark. The menu follows an ethos reminiscent to many of the places popping up today, a focus on small plates, cocktails and gastronomic flair. In my case, this usually makes ordering an exercise in excited excess, an indulgence which I embraced at Freakscene.
An elegant dish of black cod tacos was the first to be served, Scott acknowledging my presence with a hospitable smile for the first time as he placed it before me. These were hard shell tacos, brittle enough to crunch but sufficiently malleable so as not to splinter into an unfortunate mess. The sticky, perfumed rice helped in this, adhering to the shell and acting as a sort of shock absorber to every chomp and finger squeeze. The immaculately cooked fish covered with a sweetly pungent miso glaze, awakened with a trickle of lemon juice and the adorned slice of red chilli and salsa was a treat. The taco as a whole made for a scrumptious song of synergistic textures, with flavours that promised the beginning of something truly special.
Next a dish that I had no intention of ordering, but added on because…well, why not? It was not until the gents that sat beside me asked for ‘the spicy bao special’ that I decided to ask for it myself. Two nicely sized bao buns, slightly charred by some torch action, bore a juicy, immensely fiery fish cake topped with chilli pickled cucumbers, thai red chillis, and lathered in scotch bonnet mayo. Amidst tears and a slightly runny nose I smiled in sheer, unashamed, ugly pleasure. My kind of ugly delicious!
The fried chicken that swooped in after, was the perfect dish to calm the flames. A large thigh-leg quarter chicken, sat in a pool of thick syrupy peanut soy sauce. I was a little perplexed at being given a spoon instead of a knife to eat with, but I was soon disabused of my confusion. The chicken was so rip-roaringly tender that all I needed to do was slide my spoon between meat and bone to watch it fall effortlessly off, letting out a puff of luxurious aromatic steam. The chicken was soft and crisp in all the right places, and I sighed and smiled with my eyes closed, uncaring of whether or not I was being watched.
I ordered the pork belly dish that was being cooked when I arrived, and succumbed to the most deliciously tender dance of pork meat and plump mussels that came with a dollop of creamy pineapple sambal. It was meant to be eaten as a ssam wrap (Korean lettuce wrap), but I couldn’t be bothered to have the generously filled portion fall all over me as I gorged into it. Instead I picked at every piece of meat with decadent and exaggerated savour, letting myself be transported well and truly into the world of Freakscene.
Chef Scott must have been utterly fed up of me thanking him before and after every plate of food – if he did, he didn’t show it. I wanted to tell him how amazing everything was, and how grateful I was for him and his food, but I couldn’t bring to words the enormity of what I was feeling at that moment in time. So, once the bill was paid, and my belongings packed up, I got off my stool, bowed in respect and thanked the man for his wonderful cooking.
Freakscene is a one-man show of honest mastery that celebrates what it means to cook creative and delicious food. There are no kitchen walls or a busy maelstrom of bodies to hide any shortcuts taken. Scott Hallsworth cooks with humble confidence behind no hiding veil, dishes that are unmistakably top drawer.
Location: 54 Frith St, Soho, London W1D 4SL