Review: The Social Distortion, Hull

As I was booked to visit the Social Distortion when lockdown began, I considered it symbolic that it was the first place I dined at a long 15 months later.

Roast potato and potato foam one of the dishes you can get at The Social Distortion. (Dave Lee)
Roast potato and potato foam one of the dishes you can get at The Social Distortion. (Dave Lee)

First proper sit-down meal in ages, first time enjoying food and drink made by skilled professionals. A balmy June night, a comfy seat and, finally, a chance to bathe in the relief of being double-jabbed and safely returned to the warm embrace of bacchanalia. Deep breath, and relax.

Not that the Social Distortion appears, on the face of it, particularly relaxing. The ethos is “Rock ’n’ Roll Asian” and so the walls are covered in an enthusiastic clatter of Day of the Dead imagery, punk iconography, Asian cinema pictures, images of Anthony Bourdain (clearly a hero of owner/chef Mark Hill) and stickers featuring slogans like “People before Profit” and “Still Hate Thatcher”.

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Either Mark insists on wearing his politics on his sleeve, or the stickers are remnants left over from when the building was a butcher’s shop in the 1980s and no-one since has been allowed to scrape them off. This being Hull the latter is entirely possible.

The Social Distortion in Hull is a popular spot with local diners. (Dave Lee).

I loved the clatter. It’s rare to find somewhere to eat that doesn’t care if the decor annoys a few pearl-clutching customers. You’re never going to please everyone, so you might as well please yourself.

Mark planned on opening last March but was, like so many restaurants, stymied by lockdown. Instead he launched as a takeaway and created deli produce. He kept going and survived and now can finally lengthen his stride and show his pace. And it is an impressive pace.

Drinks first, we had the watermelon cooler (a very refreshing gin-based cocktail), the dill and cucumber cooler (a very refreshing Vermouth-based cocktail) and mead, which is a honey-based booze that’s so good it should be available on the NHS. Drinks are important because some of the dishes can have an unexpected chilli hit to them, so you need something cool at hand to take the edge off.

Many of you will probably be familiar with Mark Hill’s style of cookery from his days running Street Cleaver out of York. A predominantly pop-up venture offering up truly exciting Asian street food, it garnered much praise and it’s similar dishes that Mark is now serving back in his hometown. Seven or eight small plates, regularly changed, mixed meat and vegan and made from fresh local ingredients and very cannily sourced international spices and supplementals.

Because there were no starters or puds on offer (and most dishes are reasonably priced at £6-£9), we ordered one of each option and the table soon became heaped with an array of entirely delicious and enticing dishes.

Perhaps most impressive were the vegan dishes. No meat-free sausages or fake bacon here, just vegetables, nuts, oats and fruits utilised in a way that leaves you entirely sated.

Jackfruit, for instance, which I’ve always found a fairly lifeless and unimpressive blob of fibrous matter, is here deep fried with mushroom in a crispy corn batter and served with a charred pepper and chilli dressing. What this creates is something frangible and chunky with a soft inside and just as much taste as any non-meat dish I’ve ever tasted.

I’ve always hated mushrooms (even the best of us have one blind-spot), but I mistook the mushroom nham dtok for a beef dish and thoroughly enjoyed it before I realised what I’d eaten.

It’s barbecued oyster mushroom with lime, lemongrass, shallots, chilli and fish sauce and is entirely responsible for me looking at fungi in a whole new light. Quite an achievement.

Two other vegan dishes – Szechuan cabbage and potato hot wok and the jungle veg clay pot – were less of a revelation but just as good as anything else. Mark clearly has a way of using vegetables in a way that enhances the flavour while disguising any blandness.

Not that we didn’t enjoy some carnivorous delights. Pork larb is not only one of my favourite Asian dishes but one of my favourite dishes full stop. It was here presented with toasted rice powder, which gives it a welcome new texture. BBQ beef nahm dtok featured fish sauce, lime, mint and shallots and was a comparatively light beef dish. Refreshing rather than deep.

Rare rib eye served with tamarind and oyster sauce, an egg yolk and barbecued mooli was an original and distinctive surprise and the pork clay pot offered pork neck perfectly cooked in a fragrant broth with rice noodles and a zingy chilli paste.

Service all night came courtesy of a brace of gloriously insouciant waiting staff, who not only matched the walls perfectly but kept everything moving along smoothly in a relatively tight space, despite Covid-19 restrictions making their lives incredibly difficult.

The Social Distortion is, quite frankly, ace. Will it suit everyone? No. It’s both traditional Asian and freely experimental. It has no intention of catering to every taste. It’s brash and irreverent and none of the staff will be interested in your minor niggles and complaints. And that all adds to it being ace.

You’re not being catered for, you’re being invited to enter Mark Hill’s little punk Asian enclave and you can either like it or lump it. I like it. I like it enormously.

The Social Distortion, 22 Princes Avenue, Hull, HU5 3QA, telephone: 07982 677897, Opening hours Thursday, Friday, Saturday, 5pm-midnight, and Sunday 12-6pm.