Tuesday, 5 July 2011
It says a great deal more about my inexcusably spoiled attitude to London dining than it does about the excellent team behind the Magdalen that I only just resisted the temptation to dismiss the menu as "familiar". It is only familiar, of course, to hopeless restaurant addicts like me - there's the pig's head and gribiche I had at the Prince of Wales in Putney; the calves brains and capers from Racine; braised kid and artichokes from the Anchor & Hope. I'm not suggesting that any of these places invented those things (although the more knowledgeable of you are welcome to provide a more comprehensive back-story if you fancy it), but familiarity should not always be a stick to beat restaurants with - it should be a source of pride, and is to the benefit of us all, that the best dishes are passed around the gastropubs of London in tribute by enthusiastic chefs. There's nothing wrong with a familiar menu if it all tastes good, and the food at Magdalen certainly all tastes very good indeed.
Rabbit bruschetta were fresh and summery and though slightly over-oiled (actually, quite soggy if I'm going to be honest) were still a fairly decent mix of textures and flavours. I have a bit of a troubled history with rabbit; so many places cook it so badly that for a while I thought there was something about bunnies that made them inherently unsuitable for eating, and it was only a freshly barbecued version with aioli from a local restaurant in Catalonia a few years back that convinced me they were worth bothering with at all. Here the rabbit meat was sweet and juicy and as good as (I imagine) it can be.
I loved my starter of smoked anchovies, radishes, green beans and duck egg. The salad was dressed perfectly (and actually seasoned quite aggressively, fine for me but a bit too salty for my friend), the anchovies were tasty and soft (if not very smoky for some reason) and the egg was boiled to a nice runny yolk. Unpretentious, using top ingredients and displaying just enough technical skill to be worth the money, it was a classic gastropub starter. My friend's chilled cucumber soup was also delicious, studded with sweet brown shrimps and topped with dill, and very attractive to boot.
Hereford rump, white beans, spinach and rosemary was about as good a dish as I can remember from a restaurant like this, and I relished every second of the, er, 30 seconds or so it took to shovel it down. The beef itself was seared to a lovely pink, and was all incredibly tender, but it was the sauce that it came swimming in that made it really special - rich and brown and, for want of a better word, just very, very "beefy". An incredibly successful way of serving what was presumably not the most expensive cow money can buy - just cook it well and top up the flavour with a bit of extra effort in the kitchen. Top marks. And a friend’s baked brill was equally technically accomplished, with a great crispy skin (there should be some kind of law against serving fish any other way) and a silky butter sauce spiked with salty samphire.
Looking back now, I can hardly bear to think how close we came to not ordering the Magdalen cherry & almond tart. We were stuffed and slightly sozzled (well, I was), the midsummer sun was beginning to set over Tower Bridge, and had we thrown in the towel after the main courses I still would have considered it one of my favourite mid-range meals of the year. But we were enjoying ourselves very much and I quite fancied an excuse to neck a small glass of Jurancon before the train ride home, and so we thought it would be a good idea to share a dessert. What arrived was one of the greatest little cherry and almond tarts I've had the pleasure of eating in my whole life. Buttery and syrupy, with a generous handful of juicy cherries and scattering of toasted almonds, the filling was beautifully light, slightly crunchy on top and with a delicate but solid base that broke under the slightest of pressure from my spoon. Was it just that it was fresh out of the oven, was it the effect of the sweet wine, or is the pastry chef at Magdalen one of the great unsung heroes of London gastronomy? I don't know, I didn't want to know, I just want to go back and do it all again.
Detractors amongst you will point out that for the prices they charge at Magdalen, you would hope the cooking is at least very good. And yes, with £8 starters and £18 main courses and £6 desserts, while not being anywhere near unreasonable, it is perhaps more than you could spend in some local restaurants. But cooking of this style and quality - accessible, unpretentious, terrific cooking; cooking of warmth, flavour and spirit, not perfect but always enjoyable, this is not something you find in every neighbourhood. In fact, it's not something you find very often, anywhere. Magdalen is a restaurant that anyone can enjoy, and deserves to be enjoyed by as many as possible.
I was invited to review Magdalen.