Tuesday, 7 August 2018

The Ninth, Fitzrovia


For as long as I've been writing this blog, and a good deal of time before that as well, major life landmarks - birthdays, house moves, graduations, separations and reunions - have been celebrated with a hearty meal. Depending on circumstance and budget these have been anything from a mixed grill at Tayyabs to a 3 Michelin-starred tasting menu on the Costa Brava but they all have one thing in common; out of the ridiculous number of different restaurants I visit in any given year I can only find time to revisit the very best, and so it's world-beating spots like Quality Chop House, Trishna and Goodman that I will gather my nearest and dearest to enjoy/suffer with me.

Ten years ago, when I was turning thirty, my favourite high-end restaurant was Pearl, in the Renaissance Chancery Court hotel in Holborn. You may be more familiar with the site now as being occupied by the Holborn Dining Room, and the Rosewood hotel, but back then this grand space was home to chef Jun Tanaka who served a Mediterranean menu of reimagined classics like ratatouille and leek terrine alongside delicate handmade pasta and fancy schmancy desserts. It was all thrilling stuff, and made a fantastic birthday venue - slick service, a great cheeseboard, and nice toilets.


Subject to the usual drifts and currents of the London restaurant world, Pearl eventually closed, and Jun Tanaka became better known for a street food venture called Street Kitchen which dotted about the place during the London Restaurant Festival, and of course his regular appearances on BBC1's Saturday Kitchen. Then finally in 2016, he got back in a real kitchen and opened the Ninth on Charlotte Street. Which brings us to today.

There are plenty of things about the way Tanaka is going about things at the Ninth that I remember from all those years ago in Holborn. There's the confident pasta section, involving ingredients you'd actually want to eat like langoustine and rabbit. There's the attitude of things like sea bass with Datterini tomatoes and cockles, or veal tongue tonnato, playing with Italian traditions but very much in his own style. But most importantly, there's that sense of excitement and fun, in everything from the food to the service, that just makes you want to work through every item on the menu and then come back for more.


We started with oysters, because we could, and everytime we can start with oysters, we do. They were lean and fresh, with an interesting vaguely Asian ginger vinaigrette, and though they didn't really need the crisp shallots on top it didn't do any harm either.


Flamed mackerel also had an international feel - dill, cucumbers and capers are recognisably Northern European but the way the fish was presented, sliced into bitesize strips and with a spatula to serve, felt like the kind of thing they'd do in Chinatown. It tasted great as well, the mackerel being just smoked enough from the grill and the flesh irresistibly plump.


Equally great was beef cheek with oxtail consommé, the beef so tender and ribboned with fat it was almost sausagey, and the consommé rich and complex, speaking of a broad knowledge of classical French techniques learned from people like Marco Pierre White and Phil Howard. Even the most skilled home cook would struggle to make a consommé like this; and why would you bother with all that anyway when there's someone ready to make it for you for a nominal £11.50 fee?


From here on, with Tanaka's authority over fine dining firmly re-established, the Ninth could do little wrong. The pasta courses were mini symphonies of flavour, firstly agnolotti of rabbit with livers (is there any more beautiful phrase than "rabbit with livers"?), studded with girolles and boasting pasta so silky and smooth it was almost ethereal.


Similarly these striking parcels of langoustine, jet-black with (presumably) squid ink and slick with a deeply satisfying Datterini tomato sauce. I don't care how spoiled you are for great pasta after braving the queues at Padella or the noisy tables at Fat Tony's, great pasta is great pasta and is always enough to make me smile.


Main course was a whole grilled seabass, skin crisp and flesh moist, surrounded by more of those punchy Datterini and a liberal scattering of plump cockles. Tanaka's background in classical techniques was again on show here, the dressing on the seabass in its own way just as impressive as the earlier beef consommé but a completely different style performing a completely different function. I guess the French do know something about food, after all.


Had the meal ended there the Ninth would have been heading for something approaching a perfect score, and yet sadly just a couple of sides and a dessert weren't quite up to the standard of what had come before. I still can't quite believe something called "Black truffle polenta, Comté and egg yolk" could somehow conspire to be disappointing but this needed a lot more cheese, a lot more truffle, a lot more flavour...


...pickled baby artichokes were nothing more than fine, with even the shaved parmesan being oddly muted...


...and most oddly of all, a tarte tatin was slightly sour and underpowered, needing far more sugar to reach that heavenly caramelised taste of the finest examples. Perhaps this was a deliberate decision by the Ninth; all I can say is I like my tarte tatins to contain so much sugar I'm at risk of getting Type 2 diabetes just being in the same room as one, and this was... well, it was disappointing to say the least. Looked pretty enough, though.


And all said and done, the odd mis-step aside (and I realise for tarte tatin fans one of those was quite a large mis-step), there's more than enough reason to spend your dinner money at the Ninth. As he did in Pearl a decade ago, Jun Tanaka infuses his menus with so much love, so many intriguing ingredients and impressive techniques, that it's almost impossible there won't be something on the menu that would have the same effect on you that the beef cheek consommé or the flame-grilled mackerel had on us. Namely, that as soon as it was all done, we wanted to come back as soon as possible and do it all again. And there's hardly any higher compliment than that.

8/10

I was invited to the Ninth and didn't see a bill. From a quick calculation it would have come to about £80/head including more than enough booze.

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