Tuesday, 16 September 2008
The Giaconda Dining Rooms, Soho
A restaurant surely couldn't want for a better set of reviews than those achieved by The Giaconda in its opening month. Timeout (*****) and The Guardian joined a growing set of bloggers and foodies to lavish praise on the Soho eatery. At first glance, it's hard to figure out what the fuss is about. The menu reads well enough I suppose - a mixture of Mediterranean and British-inspired dishes including such choice items as foie gras and rack of lamb for two. The room is tiny but pleasantly lit, and the man and wife team that handle the kitchen and front of house respectively are clearly confident and accomplished in their respective roles, but it's hardly the kind of thing we haven't seen before in the capital. What has people excited, I think, is that as the economy continues to tumble and even those lucky diners who aren't feeling the pinch are at least encouraged to feel guilty about it, it is becoming common for reviewers and critics to highlight that extra element of value for money in their overall appraisal of a restaurant. Tayyabs, for example, has been around for the best part of 30 years but the reason it won Indian Restaurant of the Year in 2008 was because people have finally come to their senses and exposed the folly of Indian Fine Dining (Benares, Amaya, et. al.) - why pay £30 for Chicken Tikka in Mayfair when you can get it for £1 in Whitechapel? And The Giaconda not only serves very reasonably priced food and cooks it well, but all the wines are marked up the same amount, meaning there's barely anything on the list more than £30 a bottle, and a £1 cover charge (something I usually hate) gives you bread and butter, an endless supply of still or sparkling water and a little bowl of radishes to nibble on while perusing the menu. In short, The Giaconda may not be the cheapest restaurant in London but you genuinely feel you're making your pennies and pounds go as far as they possibly can - something guaranteed to win over hearts and minds in these post-credit crunch times.
Despite having mentioned how tempting the menu was, I managed to order two courses not even on it. The foie gras "au Torchon" was replaced by a seared slab of lovely creamy foie in a rich butter bean sauce, and was absolutely heavenly. I have rarely had better cooked foie gras in the top restaurants in London, so at £10.50 for this generous portion, cooked to perfection, this was an absolute bargain.
My main course, unfortunately, was less successful. An admittedly generous amount of pork belly, moist and cooked very well, was presented on a thick, creamy risotto which did nothing to offset the fatty pig meat and about two mouthfuls in became a chore to get through. I did my best to clear the plate (I'm such a trooper) but when I actually started to feel physically sick from all that richness I had to give up. A companion's plate of salmon looked a bit slimy and didn't have the texture of a great piece of fish, but was cooked well with a nice crispy skin and the "deconstructed piccalilli" was a good sharp accompaniment. We also ordered a side of chips, which were pretty good, too. I am willing to believe I chose badly as better people than me have raved about their meals here, but as the only plate of food to actually make me nauseous for as long as I can remember, I must deduct points for that.
The Giaconda's final nod to the diner on a budget is to leave the service charge off the final bill. True, it does say in rather threatening capital letters SERVICE NOT INCLUDED underneath, but it's still nice that they leave the tip up to you rather than slapping on the customary 12.5%. We still tipped 12.5%, as it happens, as the service had been very good, so everyone's a winner. In fact, the "trick" with the bill neatly sums up my experience in this restaurant. The food wasn't top-class but in doing various things just well enough and managing to make you feel you're getting the bargain of a century whereas you're just in fact getting a decent meal at gastropub prices, it satisfies your soul as well as your belly. They've even managed to get a cover charge out of me without the usual accompanying rant, so for that alone they deserve all the praise they can get.