Friday, 2 December 2011
One of the few criticisms of José Pizarro's tapas bar in Bermondsey - in fact really the only criticism - is that it's always far too busy. In Madrid, a place like José would be one of a number of options to pop in and enjoy a glass of sherry and some carved ham in any given area of town, and whilst some would be better than others, the idea is that you spend a happy evening going from bar to bar, never lingering too long in one spot and with the sheer number of alternatives helping to thin out the crowds. No such luck in SE1 - the nearest decent tapas bar once you've done with José is a cab ride to Soho away, and so the only option is to queue, cheek to jowl with other hungry patrons, hoping at some point you'll be lucky and find a seat. It's worth it, because the food and drink is always so brilliant, but you can see why it's not for everyone. What José needs, and what the people of London need, is competition - and unless you manage to get a walk-in at Zucca (good luck with that), there ain't none.
I am worried a very similar fate will befall Soif, the new restaurant from the guys behind the Terroirs and Brawn. There are lots and lots of restaurants in Battersea but with the odd exception they are all absolutely crap, so anywhere that is any good (Mien Tay, the Draft House) is permanently hugely oversubscribed. And Soif is just so much better than anywhere else in this part of town that I can very soon see it turning into the Zucca of SW11 - booked up six months in advance and with a waiting list like a kidney transplant. For now, though, let's enjoy it before the word gets around and you still stand a snowball's chance in hell of eating there.
Lardo di Colonnata, buttery and rich and presented on a marble tray in thin ribbons, was very tasty although when I've had lardo before it's been simply dressed with olive oil and seasoning and I think that helps lighten it slightly. Having said that though, it still all disappeared very quickly and if you don't enjoy the experience of melting bright write strips of pig fat in your mouth and washing them down with the house red there's something seriously wrong with you.
All the food from here on was, without exception, superb. A bowl of clams in butter and garlic was superficially simple but one of those things that's far too easy to get wrong. Bursting with freshness and seasoned perfectly, the only thing better than sucking back the sweet, juicy bivalves themselves was dipping the house sourdough in the garlicky butter sauce left behind - just brilliant.
This cute little pile of surf and turf is a paprika (I think) studded squid balanced on a disc of thick black pudding. The squid had a great flavour and a nice soft texture but the real star here was the black pudding, so thick and powerfully flavoured it was like a solid slow-cooked stew studded with chunks of pork fat.
And the third of the starters, chanterelles and pancetta, very like something I'd had once at Brawn, was a posh - and perfect - mushrooms on toast, with all kinds of strange shapes combining into an addictive mix of crunchy and soft, sweet and salty.
Based on the number of times I've had a dry partridge with flabby skin, it can't be easy to cook these birds properly. But this example was great - roasted golden brown with a fantastic aroma, the flesh beneath the crust was soft and juicy and full of gamey flavour. The sauerkraut (sorry, "choucroute"), despite my initial reservations, actually made a good sharp counterpoint to the meat, and the combination was all the more impressive once the juices from the bird had begun to mix together. But I still remain to be convinced whether it really did need that huge piece of Montbéliard sausage - it tasted perfectly nice but after stripping the partridge to the bone and knocking back a couple of mouthfuls of sauerkraut I barely had space to really appreciate it. Perhaps those with a bigger appetite would disagree.
There was one other main I forgot to take a picture of - a bowl of pig cheeks in cider and winter veg, but it was of a similar standard to the rest of the food - as soft as Christmas cake, rich as foie gras, comforting as a thick porky blanket. And given how much of my main course I had to leave, I'm not sure how I found room for any chestnut cake, but one slice between three people was just enough to send us wobbling on our way - it was lovely though, soft and buttery and lifted by the accompanying crème fraiche.
The bill, with a 500ml carafe of Cuvee Briand (much of the inspiration for the wine list and the food at Soif apparently comes from the Ardeche in SE France) came to £40 a head, which I suppose isn't super cheap but thanks to the generous attitude to portion sizes we were absolutely stuffed and you can hardly claim for food of this standard that it wasn't good value. Anywhere in London, Soif would be a great restaurant but given the standards of the area it's little short of miraculous. And it's for this reason that my hearty recommendation on 2nd December 2011 comes with a potentially ruinous caveat - this is a great value restaurant serving top food and wines in pleasant surroundings, but it's in Battersea, so be warned: I can guarantee that whenever you decide to try your luck, you won't be the only Nando's or Pizza Express exile on the hunt for a some decent grub.