Wednesday, 6 February 2008
Tom Ilic, Battersea
It's not that I don't like change per se, I just don't like change for the worse. And as the Food Room was a lovely little restaurant, I was suitably distraught when it closed, then firmly suspicious when it reopened a few days later under a new owner. Identical from the inside and out, with a very similar menu, same waiting staff, same Toptable offer (£23.50 for 3 courses and a glass of sweet Prosecco) and same odd predilection for having several industrial strength heaters blasting away despite the already roasting temperatures, it seemed at first that all had changed was the name above the door. And on our arrival at 7:30pm, we were the only diners in the restaurant, another thoughtful tribute to the old place. So my nerves were well and truly settled by the time the lovely house bread arrived; phew, I thought, it's business as usual in Battersea, my favourite local restaurant never went away, it's just had a facelift.
I fully admit I am in the minority in singing the praises of the old Food Room. Many people, amongst them pretty clued-up professional critics and bloggers, didn't think much of the place. I have no idea why - perhaps they just begrudged having to travel across London to this dark and lonely spot on the Queenstown Road and lost their appetite. All I know is, they were wrong. The Food Room was great, and should have carried on for ever, empty night after night unless I decided to grace them with my custom. Sadly, it wasn't to be. Damn you, market forces.
So there I was, encouraged by the familiar surroundings and moreish slices of warm parmesan bread, and generally feeling pretty positive. And then the food arrived - not *bad*, exactly, just not particularly interesting, flavourful or memorable. My starter was Braised pig's cheeks & chorizo, and was well presented and well proportioned in terms of the "veg to meat" ratio. But the potato was bland, the pig itself was underseasoned and even the crispy stick of skin resting on top - usually my favourite part - was underwhelming. I would otherwise have been willing to dismiss this as a rare misfire, except I was under the impression that pig dishes are what Tom Ilic is best at, and so I wasn't prepared to overlook this boring plate of food, plus a companion's Fois Gras terrine was similarly bland and heavy-going. Sweetbreads were OK though.
Roast saddle and braised neck of lamb was interesting to look at, generous in terms of the servings of meat, and the little medallions of saddle were moist and tasty. But the braised piece was unpleasantly dry and chewy, and along with the potato and "spiced" aubergine (just mildly pickled as far as I could tell), underseasoned.
In sharp contrast to the dip in quality of the food over the course of the evening, by the time we were ready to order dessert (lemon tart - nice enough, though not a great deal better than any shop-bought specimen), the restaurant was packed. On the table next to us was Giles Coren, whom the chef made a very public point of coming out to embrace like an old friend. Maybe they are old friends, I don't know, but I wonder how objective the review in the Sunday Times will be, knowing that the kitchen and service are alerted to the presence of a national food critic. OK, that sounds unforgivably bitter - I admit it, I was seething with jealousy and I want Giles Coren's job. He seemed like a lovely person, I enjoy reading his articles and I suppose it's only natural you make friends if you move in the same circles. I just wish he'd been there a few months ago when the Food Room was doing things much better and nobody gave a monkeys.
I wonder how long Tom Ilic can keep a full restaurant on a Tuesday night, once the critics have written their reviews, the novelty factor wears off, and people start to realise that there really isn't anything that special about a place that for most Londoners takes quite an effort to get to. And maybe I'm being unfair - I suppose the worst you can say about Tom Ilic is that it's dull, and really there are worst things to be - expensive and dull, for example. But until those lovely memories fade, I'll be wearing my black armband for the Food Room. Why can't the good things last forever?