Monday, 11 June 2012
Bistro Union, Clapham
"Let me explain the concept at Tex Mex Tapas", the evening will invariably begin. "On this side of the menu are a bewildering number of completely unrelated items that look good value at first until you realise that each is the size of a postage stamp and you'll need about ninety to gather enough food together to form a decent meal. They'll arrive as and when we, the restaurant, decide to send them to you, not in whichever order makes the most culinary sense, and most will be straight out of the fridge as our tiny kitchen could never cope with cooking them all to order. On the other side of the menu are dishes that fall into the more usual starters and mains portions, except you'll have no idea what to order because you won't know how hungry you'll be after filling up on "tapas". Right, still or sparkling?"
No no no no no. Stop that nonsense right now. Tapas is Spanish, and only Spanish, bar food. If you want to come up with some wacky eye-catching concept for your latest restaurant venture then knock yourselves out - you're certainly in the right place in a city that already boasts a dessert restaurant specialising entirely in mango and will soon have somewhere you can go and eat hot dogs paired with champagne - but please, for the love of God, leave tapas alone. Tapas means cold Manzanilla, sliced Iberico ham and saucers of hot croquettas, it does not just mean 'small plates of whichever food you like', and it is certainly not anything so mundane as a 'selection of starters'. José in Bermondsey, Brindisa at Borough Market, Pepito in Kings Cross, these are tapas bars. Tapasia (I can't even type the name without cringing), a place on Old Compton street serving tuna sashimi with foie gras, and lamb cutlets with kimchi, is, clearly, not.
So when we sat down at Bistro Union in Clapham's smart Abbeville Road on Friday, my heart sunk when the words "let me explain our concept to you" and "this side of the menu is sort of English tapas" were uttered by our waitress. Issues with the misappropriation of the word "tapas" aside, I just think if you have to "explain a concept" you have something to hide when it comes to the food, but perhaps that's unfair - I suppose anywhere has a right to try something different. We ordered about 6 or 7 from the "English tapas" menu to share between the 3 of us and a main each, and hoped the self-consciously English menu tasted better than it looked.
In the main, it did. Some of the bar snack things were very nice indeed, such as the 'sausage and sage puffs' which were sort of a savoury wrapped pastry thing containing sausage meat, and anchovy toast which involved Bistro Union's own approximation of Gentleman's Relish anchovy spread. A fish finger sandwich was nice, too, with good texture contrasts and nice light mayonnaise, and the house bread was an interesting sourdough thing involving chunks of apple; not anywhere near as weird as it sounds.
But I'm afraid there were also problems too big to ignore. "Peas in a pod" (£2) was literally just that, a bowl of plain garden peas untreated in any way, fine if you like plain peas but I just wish they'd done something to them to justify me being in a restaurant. New season garlic was another victim of excessive simplification, just a halved roasted garlic served next to a small blob of tasteless goat's curd, neither ingredient shining. And "whelks and pickled shallots" were actively horrible, the seafood having the texture of rubber and no flavour at all, and the pickled shallots doing nothing to ease their passage through the gullet. The whelks were so distressing, in fact, I put out a panicky tweet asking if they really were supposed to taste like that; the general consensus came back that basically, yes, they are. I'm sure I've had them before though, without suffering quite so much of a negative psychological and physiological reaction.
Mains were, on the whole, better. A toad-in-the-hole was, needless to say, nowhere near as good as the Yorkshire pudding my grandma used to make but then we've been over that territory before - it was at least generously proportioned and containing very good Cumberland sausage. A lemon sole was slightly overcooked and swimming in butter but it was a nice fresh bit of fish and accompanying horseradish celeriac was lovely. Best of the bunch was my quail which was crunchy and soft in all the right places and served with a top quality Caesar-salad-a-like using Berkswell goat's cheese instead of parmesan - clever stuff.
Despite the odd horror, then, we actually just about still found enough to enjoy and with a final bill of £31 a head with a glass or two of wine each and a single slice of (unremarkable but not unpleasant) raspberry tart to share, you certainly get a lot for your money. But there was just something about the overall idea of Bistro Union that didn't quite work - from the try-hard ever-so-English menu that seemed to constrain and annoy instead of provide focus, to the oversimplified dishes that were probably aiming for unpretentious but ended up looking spartan and unfinished. There was also the added irritation of a cover charge which 'covered' sparkling water we didn't want and bread we didn't ask for, which automatically loses points around these parts. There's a possibility Bistro Union could evolve into a good neighbourhood restaurant once they abandon the "concept" of "English tapas", loosen up a bit and lose the whelks. Until then, my advice I'm afraid is to stay away.