My only problem with eating out in London, I find, is trying to find the balance between exploring and returning to the old dependable favourites (such as Quo Vadis, Bentley’s, Barrafina, Bocca di Lupo, to name but a handful).
My visit last week gave me some pause for thought.I met three friends for an early supper in Elliott’s Café in Borough Market, a place which, according to its website, is inspired by being so close to lots of great produce. I can imagine.
The reason for choosing this restaurant in particular, to be honest, was its proximity to London Bridge station.
Anyway, the “concept” here (every second restaurant in London has a concept these days) is pretty simple: they do the usual small plates for sharing malarkey and some very big bits of beef, also for sharing. It sounded good to me.
We stuck with the small plates. Now, one must bear in mind that London prices are steep but, even so, I was somewhat taken aback at a bill for £190. It felt as if we had snacked lightly, had some mineral water and consumed two bottles of wine between four of us. It didn’t feel as if we had had a meal.
And then there was the matter of the wine. Elliott’s prides itself on having a wide selection of “natural wines”, a somewhat controversial category but one that includes a number of pretty serious producers. The main problem, in my experience, is that when you make wine without sulphur (which is known as the winemaker’s Dettol), the stuff that ends up in the bottle is a prey to all sorts of mishaps.
However, in the interests of balance (and because I usually run a mile when I hear the words “natural wine”, I should stress that Fiona Beckett, as sound a wine writer as ever used a spitoon, says there are plenty of good ones and even has a blog devoted to the subject: winemadenaturally.blogspot.com
Our bottle of white, a South African Chenin Blanc, was very dry and reasonably pleasant even if it did what so many “natural” whites do, viz. taste of rather bracingly dry cider. And there are worse things to drink than bracingly dry cider (although not at £39 per 75cl). Our southern French red, on the other hand, was redolent of drains. French drains, on a warm evening. I can think of less penitential ways of losing £35.
The food? Well, the vitello tonnato was a very modest affair for £8, perfectly pink but with a tonnato element that was hard to see with the naked eye and capers the size of shot from a cartridge. St George’s mushrooms were also rather Lilliputian (they do vary in size quite a bit, but still) and served with an egg yolk at a rather shocking £12; however, this was a dish that actually tasted darn good.
Four tiny cheese puffs, each the size of my thumb nail, weighed in at a fiver and, most memorable of all, seven thin slices of salame (fennel flavoured, pleasant enough) weighed in at a stonking £9. Yes, seven between four of us. No, there wasn’t a fight.
I’ll draw a veil over the rest of the dishes (because none were memorable, anyway) and simply recall that one of our party said, in a jolly tone, to the person who appeared to be in charge of the joint “Why do they have big wine glasses, and we have small ones?”
“Because we’ve run out of big ones,” she snapped.
Well, I won’t be going back. It strikes me that Elliott’s is, if you will forgive the expression, up itself when it has no excuse to be so.
Lunch at Hereford Road, one of my regular haunts when I’m in West London, was a very different affair. They do a splendid set lunch for £13.50 for two courses, £15.50 for three. I remember the first time I went there, very shortly after it opened and when bald menu descriptions in the manner of a telegram were still quite new. “Black pudding, danedlion, duck egg,” was the first thing I read. I fell upon it with what PG Wodehouse calls “glad cries”. I had come home (curiously where Bayswater merges with Notting Hill).
This time a small but savourily seasoned and precisely rare onglet steak came smoky from the grill with fat chips and proper aioli; my daughter’s vast mackerel, so fresh its flesh was snow white, same with a crunchy, refreshing salad of cucumber and kohl rabi.
For starters, we had left the set menu for the charms of grilled English asparagus with a sweetly tart blood orange vinaigrette for me and a dish of crisp lamb’s sweetbreads with green beans in a creamy yet sharp dressing.
We shared a perfectly simple, sensitively dressed green salad that included some blanched dandelion leaves.
That’s what you get at Hereford Road. I suppose you could call it Modern British but I prefer to think of it just as good food with no fecking around. I’m not surprised that Bruce Palling chose this restaurant in which to interview the great Rowley Leigh (father of modern British food in many ways, famed for Kensington Place and latterly the sadly now defunct Le Café Anglais). You can watch the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cP9nF4qWuno
In a metropolis where restaurant fashions are as changeable as the weather, Kitty Fisher’s, a tiny restaurant on Shepherd Market in the heart of Mayfair (the natural habitat of the Russian oligarch) is still the talk of the town, having opened a couple of months ago.
I phoned at ten in the morning and managed to get a table for two at 12 noon, with the perfectly reasonable injunction that we would have to vacate by half-past-one. If ever there was a restaurant with cause to be snooty and – that phrase again -up itself, here it is.
But no. Everybody was utterly charming, wildly enthusiastic about what they serve and very accommodating (we didn’t manage to finish by the appointed time and ended up at the bar).
Chargrilled sourdough came with the marks of the grill upon it and some whipped butter topped with a black dust that is made from carbonised onion: so, crunchy bread, cool, creamy, salty butter, and a pleasantly bitter hint of onion. My initial scepticism was asssuaged.
A portion – much more generous that at Elliott’s – of intensely savoury Welsh laverbread salame weighed in at £6.50 and we followed these with burrata served with fresh peas (including some chargrilled in the pod) and mint, a delightful hint of late Spring.
Long cooked ox cheek, melting in its own mahogany gravy came with an intensely buttery colcannon enriched with a touch of bacon. A saddleback pork chop was outstanding; not fashionably pink but cooked absolutely á point to the nanosecond and served, unusually, with little Jersey Royals in a sauce of wild sorrel and yoghurt (which made them look rather confusingly like Brussels sprouts).
We shared a pudding of what purported to be brown bread ice cream with marmalade (because, let’s face it, that sounds great) but it turned out to be the only disappointment of the meal. It was vanilla ice cream topped with sand-textured brown bread crumbs, sitting in a little marmalade sauce.
Brown bread ice cream (invented, I believe, in the Irish country house kitchen of Edwardian times) involves brown bread crumbs turned into a kind of rough praline and folded into the ice cream mixture; a very different kind of texture indeed.
But this was a delightful meal served with style and genuine warmth, exactly what you don’t expect from such a fashionable joint. Just think of what Chiltern Firehouse was (is still?) like. Yes, let’s not go there.