Friday, 9 March 2018

Minnow, Clapham Common

It stands to reason, or it should come as no surprise to learn, that the best and the worst restaurant reviews are the easiest to write. Plenty of examples of both can be found on this blog, from the jaw-dropping perfection of the reborn Roganic and rural idyll of the Parkers Arms to the filth-strewn dining hall of JRC Global BUffet and the cynically grim Playboy Club, all those reviews pretty much just fell onto the page. This dish was fantastic, this was terrible; here we had the time of our lives, here we sulked home poor and depressed. Easy.

More difficult is anything that falls inbetween those two extremes. When the food, for no very obvious reason, is just a bit... dull. Somewhere you end up not hating it but not loving it either, and leave with a vague sense of disappointment. Somewhere that you'd not rush to return to, but that if you heard someone else enjoying it a lot more, you wouldn't be surprised either. Finding anything insightful to say about places in this category can be torture; and what's worse is that there are so bloody many of them.

But there is a category of restaurant even more troubling than that. The only places more difficult to write up than the mediocre or unmemorable is the mediocre or unmemorable where everyone involved is so unbelievably nice and friendly and enthusiastic that the idea of not being able to reward their efforts with a glowing review makes me genuinely queasy.

Here we go anyway. On paper, Minnow is doing everything right. It's a cosy, comfortable little bistro on the edge of Clapham Common, a few doors down from the Dairy, serving a short, attractive menu of seasonal British dishes for a sensible amount of money. Yes, it's the kind of thing you may have seen before but London will never have enough friendly, independent restaurants serving seasonal food - this is what we're rightly famous for, and from St. John to Quality Chop House to, well, the Dairy - and each new addition to the fold is to be welcomed, regardless of how successfully it turns out. God knows it's hard enough opening any restaurant these days.

I so wanted Minnow to be good. I live about 20 minutes' walk away, for one thing. But from the first bite of ho-hum house sourdough weirdly served with whipped butter and drizzled with olive oil, it was clear we were going to have very different ideas about what made a good dinner.

Oysters were cool and fresh and contained plenty of brine, but the mignionette alongside was weirdly sweet and not acidic enough and just didn't work at all. For a second oyster I asked for a slice of lemon instead, which they provided happily and quickly, which somehow just made me feel more guilty.

An unordered extra snack of crisp fried kale and sugared nuts was probably the nicest single thing we ate all evening, all colour and crunch and plenty of seasoning. I love what baking/frying does to kale, but then I like raw kale too - especially the way the frills in the leaves hold sauces and dressings.

I therefore wasn't too distressed to see yet more crisp fried kale appear alongside some scallops in my starter proper, but it did make me think, if they knew the starter I'd ordered came with kale, why give me extra kale as a snack as well? Perhaps because the kale was the most interesting bit of the scallop dish, the seafood being underseasoned and the bacon jam tasting weirdly not much of bacon at all, but more like a strange, cold, onion chutney.

A generous mound of soft, lovely white crab meat was enough to redeem another starter, although it came hiding under a soft cracker thing which defied reason or explanation. The provided dressing was thick with dark soy and far too powerful, and was largely avoided.

Cassoulet should be a thick, salty jumble of sausage and beans and meat and herbs, generous of form and flavour. I'm afraid the version at Minnow was a seriously wan affair, the confit rabbit tasting of cotton wool, the sauce tasting of little more than tinned bean juice, and the handful of tiny pieces of sausage doing nothing to season or excite. I'm afraid this was a seriously disappointing dish, made more disappointing by the rememberance of cassoulets past.

Hake was better, thanks to a beautifully cooked bit of fish with a nice crisp skin, although the less said about the strange pool of insipid blitzed greenery it sat in the better. "Parsley broth" sounds like it could be nice, doesn't it? This didn't taste much of parsley, and wasn't much of a broth.

Sides didn't impress either, sadly. Chips were soggy and orange (cooked too slowly? Who knows) and the truffle flavour largely absent. Cabbage in anchovy butter seemed to be missing the anchovy element, too, seemingly consisting of little more than charred cabbage absolutely drenched in butter way past the point of edibility.

Normally after a succession of such underwhelming dishes we would cut our losses and leave, but everyone from the chefs in the open kitchen to the amenable serving staff were all just so bloody nice that I was desperate to find something to be positive about other than the crisp kale. Unfortunately, coffee creme caramel wasn't set, and lemon curd sandwiched inbetween two discs of shortbread was absolutely no more than the sum of its parts. Even the (raspberry?) sorbet seemed subdued. So that was that. We paid up and left.

So look, I'm really sorry, Minnow, really I am. Maybe it isn't you, maybe it's me. Maybe I ordered badly or you were having an off day, or I just don't "get" what you're trying to do. But you or I can't escape the fact that a few doors down the Dairy is doing this kind of thing at a whole other level of ability and finesse, and are charging very similar prices for doing so. And next time I'm in Clapham Common, hungry for seasonal Modern British food and £80 in my pocket, it's the Dairy that will be getting my hard earned, not their neighbour, no matter how friendly the welcome will no doubt be. In the end, glittering service, and crisp kale, can only get you so far.


1 comment:

Matt said...

I know that feel! Had to do at least a couple of reviews like that. So wanted to like Mowgli, but it's just not very good.

I wouldn't worry for Minnow, though. Superb service actually gives them a brilliant chance at success. Why do you think random local Italian restaurants and Moroccan kebab houses are so often #1 on TripAdvisor even in towns and neighbourhoods with unquestionably better options? The vast majority of punters notice a friendly welcome far more than they notice the food! Especially for a night out with family or friends.