Friday, 1 July 2016
Duende, Covent Garden
The last post on this blog was about Dickie Fitz, an Australasian bistro in Fitzrovia that managed to be both hugely entertaining and genuinely innovative, serving a style of Asian-Western fusion food that has rarely been seen in the capital before. I would have enjoyed my meal there even if I was already familiar with things like "short soup" and "baked eggplant with tofu and miso" but the quality of the cooking combined with the thrill of discovering something new made it all that much more memorable. There's nothing nicer than being surprised.
Actually there is one thing nicer than being surprised - being surprised again. I freely admit that when I booked Duende I wasn't expecting much more than another post-José tapas joint, plates of silky Iberico ham, sherry, blistered Padron peppers in a little terracotta bowl and perhaps some nice grilled meats. I'd heard good things on the grapevine, but this was after all still Covent Garden, an area of town where the unofficial motto for restaurants has traditionally been "if you can make a fortune being shit, why bother being good?". I chose it as a venue for a quiet family dinner, smug in the knowledge I knew exactly what was coming. Oh yeah, Spanish restaurants in London? I've got their number.
Of course, and by now you'll know where this is going, I was completely and utterly wrong about Duende. Things started familiarly enough in the form of a gazpacho soup, though even this stalwart was a top example, fresh pea shoots and crunchy radish livening a thick, umami-rich tomato base, gently toasted croutons providing more texture and a lick of oil. If it didn't taste so lovely I perhaps would have been a bit irritated by the wacky upended wineglass presentation, but as it is I'll let it slide.
"Galician Seaweed Salad" came rolled up like sushi, beautifully presented with evenly-rolled sliced avocado containing a good amount of crunchy seaweed. With vegetarian dishes like this - in fact in all dishes, but particularly vegetarian ones - the difference between success and failure is little more than proper seasoning; this dish was expertly put together and full of flavour.
Duende's croquettas involved aubergine and goat's cheese, and I was worried would be a bit slimy. But the aubergine was more of a taste than a texture, thankfully, and the cheese bound it all together and seasoned it beautifully.
Galician beef fillet (if you ever see Galician beef on a menu, order it) came with pickled mushrooms, roast hazelnut and a light truffley dressing and was also lovely. The menu described the meat itself as "cured" though I didn't detect much of that, just the smooth, soft flavour of good raw cow.
I don't envy whoever's job it was to painstakingly bone and "lollipop" these quail but I was very happy to enjoy the fruits of their labours, wrapped in Iberica pancetta and dipped in a treacly reduced Pedro Ximinez sauce.
I used to be dead set against fried oysters, thinking it was a waste to ruin the delicate flavour of these special beasties inside a thick batter. However, I've since realised there's nothing "delicate" about the flavour of oyster at all, and if anything the deep frying enhances the seafood tang and turns the experience of eating them into something else entirely. Sherry and wild almonds were a very clever foil to the shellfish, and a little blob of caviar finished them off perfectly.
Crispy prawns were probably my least favourite of the Duende dishes, partly because they were a bit bland and oily, and partly because even if they hadn't have been, and had been seasoned and fried a bit better, I still wasn't sure how something looking like it had been lifted from the freezers at Iceland should fit onto a Modern Spanish menu. Still, it was at least a talking point.
We ended on a high, though. "Poached duck egg" was a heavenly mixture of smooth-as-silk mashed potato, truffle and just-so egg, the runny yolk combining with the buttery potato and soaking into the grilled bread underneath. It didn't look like much - even my new camera struggled to define any distinguishing features - but I loved every bit of it, right down to the last velvety drop.
One final trick Duende has up its sleeve is that for all this food and a glass of wine per person the bill came to £120, which I know is a bit much to be described as 'modest' but is incredibly good value considering the Herculean effort that went into some of the dishes. Oh, and that total also includes £11 of lamb chops that I forgot to take a photo of and didn't get to eat; I didn't hear any complaints though.
It's heartening that in 2016, with pressure from investors to find a bandwagon and get on it, to laminate your menu and look for a second site, there is still room - and a market (the place was rammed, though it is only tiny) - for a wilfully offbeat experiment like Duende, beating to the rhythm of their own drums and to hell with what anyone else is doing. That it's sat slap-bang in Covent Garden and not in some converted bag shop in Haggerston is all the more impressive, and the fact it's just over the road from the very antithesis of independence and hospitality, the dreadful novelty office party venue Fire and Stone, is the icing on the cake. If you've been searching for some good news recently, and I don't blame you if you have, look no further than the happy, contented customers of 16 Maiden Lane. Where there's Iberico ham and croquettas, there's hope.
Duende may well be in the next version of the app. See what else is in Covent Garden, and elsewhere, here.