Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Darby's, Battersea

I have been following chef Robin Gill's career with an interest bordering on obsession since a meal at the Dairy all the way back in 2013. Restaurants like the Dairy, and chefs like Gill, tend to invite obsession - his food is an unbeatable combination of exquisitely tasteful and flatteringly accessible, just one case in point being the famous truffled Brie de Meaux on sourdough toast (later Baron Bigod) with rooftop honey, a superficially simple arrangement of ingredients that swiftly became the talk of the town and something approaching a signature dish. For this, and countless other wonderful things, I made the Dairy my restaurant of the year in 2014, and it's absolutely still one of the best tables in town, even as its rustic style and seasonal philosophies have spawned a hundred close imitators.

But despite all this, only a fool would think the success of the Dairy automatically made it some kind of template you could stamp onto anywhere you wanted a nice restaurant. And presumably as well, a project such as Darby's comes with an extra large helping of massive risk - this vast space, with its beef ageing rooms and bakery and huge central bar, positioned in a windswept no-man's-land around the back of the new US embassy and absolutely nowhere you'd stumble across by accident - had the potential on paper of being the biggest white elephant since the Millenium Dome. Would anyone make the effort to find it?

Well yes, they would - and they will - and that's because, somewhow, Gill's technically-brilliant-yet-homely cooking has evolved and expanded quite naturally into this new showroom, and has been joined by a selection of fresh seafood, premium steaks and house charcuterie that help form a menu best described as the Dairy by way of Bentley's.

And much like the Richard Corrigan gaff, it's a good idea to start with oysters. At early evenings, half a dozen and a pint of Guinness is an incredible £10 - surely one of London's great seafood bargains. Any other time expect to pay a slight more realistic £2.75/pop upwards, but these are excellent specimens, shucked to order (not always a given, believe me) and presented with all the trimmings. Oh, and the Guinness is nicely done too.

Gill's love of Spanish and Italian food is given expression in the snacks menu, where gildas (Basque skewers of anchovy and olives) appear alongside truffled arancini (as good as I remember from Sorella) and occasionally off-menu delicacies such as rich, tomato-y tinned mussels and a Mediterranean salad of canned mackerel. Don't worry though, this isn't your John West supermarket mackerel, these are the posh Spanish kind - substantial and rewarding, definitely worth sampling if available, and you won't know unless you ask...

Unsurprisingly for somewhere boasting its own dry ageing room, the steaks at Darby's, from the diminutive Dexter breed, are top notch. Grilled confidently over coals and boasting thick ribbons of funky yellow fat, they are beautiful things indeed, and it's my equal pleasure to report that after some deeply disappointing steak sauces in various places (hang your head, STK), the green peppercorn sauce and bone marrow gravy at Darby's are both essential. So order them both - I did. Also, keep an eye on that ageing room for huge turbot, and later in the year pheasant and grouse and who knows what else.

Darby's even do their own version of the Quality Chop House confit potatoes - here called "crispy beef fat potatoes" - with delicate layers of spud mandolined and pressed back together into a kind of a savoury millefeuille. Order those, too.

If you've ever had the bone marrow agnolotti at the Dairy (and if you haven't, put that right immediately) then you'll know these guys do a good pasta. And so this veal pappardelle was predictably glorious, with a meaty, Marmite-y ragu draped over huge folds of bouncy carbs, the kind of texture you find only from places bothering to make their own pasta from scratch, daily. Which, of course, they do.

I wasn't going to have any dessert (all the above was somehow divvied out between just two of us) but this little sorbet appeared as we asked for the bill, so that was nice of them. It was excellent, as I'm sure are all the desserts based on many years sampling the offerings from the Dairy.

There are two other things worth mentioning while I have your attention. Firstly, front of house is headed by Emma Underwood, formerly of Sticky Walnut, Where the Light Gets In, Stem and basically every not just exciting but groundbreaking new restaurant of the last few years so clearly she knows a good thing when she sees one. Whether you decide to fold yourself into one of Darby's' generously proportioned booths or perch at the bar and pester the chefs with questions about oysters and pasta (no prizes for guessing which of these options I went for), you'll be in exceedingly safe hands. And secondly, having made extensive use of their services at both (full disclosure) the launch party and this particularly booze-soaked Sunday lunch, the guys behind the bar make some brilliant drinks. The martini is served in a frozen glass, for example, which I always find is a sign of somewhere going that extra mile.

So all in all, there's very little not to love about Darby's. From a team with such a proven track record in all their various specialist areas, and given such a (presumably) dream budget to work with, we were always like to end up with somewhere worth lavishing with your dinner money. But as I wobbled home on the 344 bus that sunny Sunday afternoon I realised that very few people other than the Gills (it's a family affair, jointly run with wife Sarah, and with son Ziggy providing additional entertainment) could have taken such an unpromising chunk of this faceless, endless Nine Elms development and given it such heart. And it's that extra sprinkling of pixie dust, that gloss of Irish charm, that turns what could have been a rather obscure Battersea building site into the latest great London food destination.


I went to the Darby's opening party, and as part of general blogger privilege the oysters and a couple of the tinned dishes didn't appear on the bill.