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.

Monday 10 June 2019

Bob Bob Cité, The City

I should start this post with a kind of disclaimer. This will not be a normal review, partly because we didn't pay for any of the following and also because after so many years, and so many wonderful caviar- and champagne-soaked evenings in the glorious Soho location, the chances of my being even the least bit impartial about a brand-spanking-new Bob Bob are nearly zero.

So no, this won't be a normal review, but then Bob Bob Cité, like Bob Bob Ricard before it, is nothing like a normal restaurant, and almost defies criticism based on the usual criteria used for judging the success or otherwise of a place to eat. It's hugely reductive - and largely unfair - to say that not many people went to BBR for the food - they did, of course, because it was lovely, from their luxury fish pie glazed immaculately with the restaurant's logo, to their famous Eton Mess en perle which arrived in a meringue globe dissolved dramatically at the table. But even these theatrics inevitably played second fiddle to the extraordinary interior and rarefied atmosphere of the building itself, where every inch glowed with marble and brass, and backlit "Press for Champagne" buttons cooed seductively in the booths.

By employing the services of big-name chef Éric Chavot at the new site, Bob Bob Cité managed to grab a few headlines many months before their doors opened. Chavot won two Michelin stars when he worked at the Capital back in the day, and though I hate Michelin and everything they stand for, usually when on familiar - ie. French - ground, their bourgeois opinions aren't so easily dismissed. He is clearly a great chef, whose style fits around the super-luxe Bob Bob aesthetic wonderfully, and whose food would be a reason to visit even if you were to enjoy it in a reclaimed knackers yard under a railway bridge. They've upped the food game, in fact, to such a degree that it now stands alongside the best of Henry Harris' uber-gastropubs (the Coach in Clerkenwell, the Hero of Maida or the Crown in Chiswick) for this kind of thoughtful, precise, classical French cooking.

So let's stick with the food for a bit. This particular evening began with a glass of Krug champagne and 20g of Russian caviar because that's absolutely how all evenings should begin at Bob Bob. Presumably Chavot didn't have much involvement in this, or the excellent warm baguette which arrived at the same time, but whoever opened the caviar tin and poured the champagne did an excellent job. Service, needless to say, is just as sparkling as it is in Soho.

French Onion soup was the first real Chavot dish, and he played an absolute blinder. I can find quite a lot to enjoy in even quite a humble FOS, but when treated to good beef stock, and aged Comté, this classic really shines. One word of warning though - the next time I tackle one of these in a white T-shirt, I'm going to tuck a napkin down my neck. Because once the final morsels of glossy, beef-soaked caramelised onions had been mopped up, I looked like I'd gone for a swim in the stuff.

Duck egg "au plat" was a kind of posh brunchy affair, with a huge fried duck egg resting on top of addictively salty cubes of cured beef and pickled veg. One minor criticism that cropped up was that the advertised "Gruyère and truffle foam" played rather a subdued role, and though I'm sure Chavot put exactly the amount of "Gruyère and truffle foam" on the plate that he thought fit, I'm afraid when I'm promised "Gruyère and truffle foam", I want a lot of it. Otherwise, this was very lovely.

I love that Bob Bob Cité have snails on the menu, partly out of the usual foodie compulsion to appreciate the most unusual or unlikely ingredient on a menu, but also because I love the idea of eating such rustic French fayre in such an unlikely situation. They arrived, admittedly, slightly more fancied-up than usual, beneath a soft potato foam and studded with crunchy bacon bits, tasting earthy and rich and wonderful in their vivid green parsley sauce. Perhaps the French do know a bit about cooking, after all.

There are few more satisfying starters than steak tartare, and Bob Bob Cité's version has plenty to recommend it - good aged beef, the perfect balance of shallots and capers, a lovely soft quail's egg on top - even without 10g of Siberian caviar on top to turn it into the "Steak tartare impériale". Completely ludicrous, of course - I mean who on earth takes a perfectly decent dish and slaps a tablespoon of caviar on top - and yet, because this is Bob Bob and if anybody can get away with it, they can, it works. The seafood and the beef create a kind of extravagant surf'n'turf, every bit of it a joy.

Beef Wellington made great use of a different bit of cow - 35-day-aged fillet - presented first as a whole inside pastry, then taken away to be plated. Perfectly pink inside, once draped in truffle sauce it became the platonic ideal of a beef welly, immaculately executed and basically unimprovable in any way.

Lobster thermidor always struck me as a slightly bizarre thing to do to fresh seafood. I have a lot of time for many of the fine dining clichés that have been handed down through generations of mistachio'd and toque-hatted chefs - pommes Dauphinoise, tournedos Rossini, blanquette de veau to pick just three other Escoffier recipes - but loading a halved lobster with bechamel, egg yolks and cheese seems like a good way to simultaneously ruin both a cheese omelette, and a lobster. That said, the person who ordered this had absolutely nothing but praise for it, so perhaps I should wind my neck in.

Dover sole, served on the bone and topped with an interesting array of capers, gherkins and lemon, fell apart into nice meaty chunks and ate every bit as good as it looked. Classic French class.

Even sides were exemplary. Truffled mash was about 80% butter, which was entirely welcome, chips had a fantastic texture, crisp on the outside and creamy within, and some grilled hispi cabbage arrived charred and in a cloud of woodsmoke, as if it had just been lifted from the bonfire.

I'm not sure what happened to my photography in the final moments of my meal at Bob Bob Cité but there's every chance the surplus of champagne served to make me a little distracted. I have (vague) memories of being similarly... distracted after a vodka tasting evening at the Soho location, so clearly this is just something that happens when you put yourself in their hands. Anyway, desserts (as far as I know) were, like everything that came before, very French and very good. Rhum baba was soaked in alcohol (this is a good thing) and lemon meringue had all sorts of clever techniques happening at once, and bags of flavour in the lemon curd.

That's the food, then - all of it at least intelligently conceived and expertly constructed, a masterclass in French haute cuisine that lives up to every last penny of the rather 'haute' price points. People will come to Bob Bob Cité for the food, because it's great, and because fancy French, done as well as this, is almost a novelty in London in 2019 - blame changing trends and fashions, but also (mainly) blame rubbish hotel restaurants charging way too much for pretty poor examples of it. Eric Chavot's cooking is definitely worth the journey.

But if the food has stepped up a level, incredibly the design of the new place exists in a different stratosphere. I've been in some pretty fancy restaurants in my time, but Bob Bob Cité's extraordinary interior design feels genuinely otherworldly, like it's been lifted from some idealised futurist paradise. There's the attention to detail you'd expect from their fanatical approach to everything, from the dot-matrix display that ticks round the ceiling like a tongue-in-cheek nod to the local traders, and the hand-painted tableware emblazoned with an exquisitely tasteful font. But from the leather booths to the polished Art-Deco-by-way-of-Asgard chandeliers the place just sparkles. Just moving through it is like taking a mood-enhancing drug, one room in various brilliant shades of blue, another shining in pink and red. And as a backdrop to all that, floor to ceiling windows that provide a sweeping view over the Leadenhall's vast atrium and surrounding architectural marvels (the Gherkin, and the Lloyds building are neighbours). It's like eating and drinking on the set of some utopian Sci-fi. There is absolutely nothing else like it in the world, I'm sure.

So come for the food, by all means. Treat yourself to caviar and champagne, indulge in escargots and flat fish on the bone, and baked cheesey lobster. You'll enjoy it. You will. It's great. But if you agree that a large part of the, for want of a better word, experience of eating at the original Bob Bob Ricard is to be swept up in the grand theatrics of the room, resisting - and failing to resist - pressing the Press for Champagne button one last time, of knowing you're spending too much and drinking too much but never wanting it to stop, then I should warn you, this new site will test your resistance even further. If Bob Bob Ricard is the very definition of luxury, Bob Bob Cité is the future of indulgence itself - the new benchmark by which, from now on, anyone aiming to provide the ultimate restaurant experience will be judged. At any new opening across any of the bewildering number of new buildings that have swept across London in recent years, no matter how extensive the fit-out, no matter how big name the chef, expect to hear some variation of the following: "Well, it's good," they'll say, "but it's no Bob Bob Cité."


We didn't see a bill for any of the above, and given how much Krug and caviar was consumed, it could have been well north of £200/head. But it's worth pointing out that they do a chicken pie for £21 so you could go in, order that and a glass of Picpoul and escape for around £30. You won't do that - nobody will - but, you know, you could.

Monday 3 June 2019

The Swan at Shakespeare's Globe, South Bank

After so many years eating and writing about restaurants, I tend to flatter myself I can tell the good from the bad with a quick glance at a menu. And on paper at least, the Swan at Shakespeare's Globe is boldly and assuredly exactly my kind of place. Starters of English asparagus and duck liver custard, mains of wild garlic broth and rabbit with nettles, unusual strictly seasonal ingredients in interesting and tasteful combinations, it was clearly constructed by people who love eating and know how to express that love in words. I got as far as "Ox cheek & spelt risotto, cured bone marrow" before deciding my search for dinner on the South Bank was over, and ventured inside.

Things began well enough. Front of house found us a corner of a large sharing table to use as the rest of this large, bright restaurant was at capacity, which was nice of them, and cocktails were, if not entirely brilliant ("Rhubarb Negroni" had too much Campari and seemingly no rhubarb, and something called "Spring, Where Art Thou!" was too sweet), then at least enjoyable. By the time we'd ordered food, the mood was very much one of cheerful optimism.

Until it arrived. Firstly, a spelt risotto which looked the part until you realised the spelt had a very strange texture, possibly from some kind of mistake in the cooking process but I won't even bother trying to guess what, making it all a bit, well, slimy. Without the weird sliminess it might have been OK - it was all seasoned properly and it was a sensible portion size - but the shredded ox cheeks just got lost in the mush, and it wasn't much fun to eat.

Asparagus were even more upsetting. Presumably at one time these had been nice fresh vegetables, but having been grilled a long time ago, and left in the fridge, they were presented cold, chewy, and utterly lifeless. God knows who's idea it was to serve "chargrilled asparagus" fridge cold, but they need a serious talking to. Lardo was nice enough, and some lightly dressed salad was edible, but the "truffle jam" didn't seem to contain any truffle and had its bland sweetness didn't do anything to compliment anything else. Also it's worth noting both starters arrived barely a minute after we'd ordered them - how long had they been sitting around?

Any weak hope the starters were anomalies was crushed with the arrival of the mains. A dish of rabbit, nettles, artichoke and lobster should have me purring with delight, but the ballotined rabbit was a strange pasty texture, tasting only of the ham that had been used to wrap it, lobster was overcooked, the tail portion chewy and the claw hard, and the whole thing was barely above room temperature. Disappointment barely covers the emotions I felt as I glumy picked my way through it.

Brill - twenty six quid's worth of it - arrived accurately cooked, but entirely unseasoned, and was similarly difficult to eat. "Rolled leeks" were chewy and unpleasant, "Champagne sauce" is probably supposed to look like cuckoo spit but presumably not taste like it, and a large poached oyster heaved on top of the whole thing just looked clumsy and bizarre. This was not good food.

So what on earth happened here? How can a set of dishes that worked so well on paper, that made such exciting reading, turn out so dissapointing in reality? Ordinarily I'd walk away from an experience like this saddened and frustrated but completely baffled - with so much effort clearly having gone into the sourcing of ingredients, it makes no sense that there would be such a disjoint on application. And I would have remained baffled - £63 a head lighter, and baffled - had a few days later the subject of my dismal dinner came up in conversation with a friend. "Oh yes, the Swan poached Simon Ulph from the kitchens at St Leonard's. He spent ages reworking the menu and introducing some exciting new dishes, only for the management to say they wanted to start doing sandwiches. So he left."

Now, obviously take any such anecdotes with a pinch of Maldon salt - there are few less reliable sources of information than restaurant kitchen gossip - but you have to admit, it provides a rather neat explanation to what happened on Friday. A (by all accounts) talented chef is brought in to revamp a menu and reinvigorate a kitchen. He's barely started, possibly not even given enough time to fully train his team on the new dishes, when management have a fit of the nerves about the experimental direction the new chef is going in, and completely change his brief. Said chef leaves, and we're left with a "ghost kitchen" with a menu full of dishes nobody really knows how to cook.

Oh well, these things happen. I'd had such a good run for a while, I suppose I was long overdue a bad meal. If nothing else, it's taught me to look out for Simon Ulph's next move because I really want to know if that rabbit, nettle and lobster dish lives up to the thing I've invented in my head, and I do hope the Swan manage to get their kitchen back on track, with or without the sandwiches. Meantime, I can only suggest you avoid the place.