Friday 18 August 2023

The Silver Birch, Chiswick

It's a pleasant novelty to, for once, not be opening a post about an excellent neighbourhood restaurant without a resigned grump about the lack of such places in my own particular neighbourhood. Until recently, my fellow SW11 residents had very little to be proud of (and even less so since the wonderful Mien Tay changed ownership, although mercifully so far this doesn't seem to have knocked standards too much), but with the arrival of Ploussard we have been gifted the holy grail of local dining - affordable, seasonal, consistent, and fun. I booked a return more or less as soon as I'd finished my first meal there.

And so to Chiswick, where the lucky locals of this leafy (and commendably cyclist-friendly) part of town have a genuine gem on their hands. The Silver Birch is not brand new, but had the awful initial bad luck of opening between Covid lockdowns in 2020, and by all accounts struggled to find an audience in a time when most people were afraid to leave their front doors never mind sit indoors in a small high street restaurant. But now, with a new head chef (Nathan Cornwall, ex- of the Barn at Moor Hall), a superb new front of house (our waitress introduced herself as Yas) and an ambitious (and yes, slightly more expensive) menu, this is a restaurant supremely confident of its place in the world.

Given that all the items that caught our eye from the a la carte made up the tasting menu, the tasting menu seemed the obvious choice. A few years ago £90 would have marked you out as being at the finer end of fine dining, but these days, just as Thursday is the new Friday, £90 is the new £50. It began with "snacks", cured trout and seaweed tart which had a lovely balance between the seafood and earthy vegetal pureé underneath (plus topped with salmon roe, which I always love), a cute little blue cheese paste sandwiched between delicate parmesan crackers, and my personal favourite pig's head fritters, joyous little parcels of soft, rich pork inside crisp fried breadcrumbs.

The focal point of the next course was some quite excellent sourdough focaccia, with a delightful delicate salty crust and gently sticky crumb. With that, whipped lovage butter provided in such generous amounts that required you put a quite thick layer on the bread to use it up. And you won't hear anyone complaining about that. But the fun didn't end there - there was also a cute little bowl of smoked bacon mousse with pea veloute, colourful and exquisitely constructed. None of the above would look out of place in a restaurant with multiple Michelin stars.

If you look closely at this tartare you may notice that the beef itself is quite light thanks to quite extensive marbling. This is ex-dairy cattle beef, full of flavour and full of yielding, luscious fat, and complimented perfectly by crunchy fresh discs of kohlrabi, cournichon, wee little nasturtium leaves and little blobs of mustard and vegetable pureé of some kind, maybe the advertised sea herbs. For more texture, there was a few shards of house cracker which had herbs baked into them. Every inch of this dish, indeed everything up to this point as well, was considered and carefully crafted, with a strong set of cooking skills put to great use.

Isle of Wight tomatoes, beautifully presented, skinless and sweet and perfectly seasoned, came with a tomato consommé so good it was worth the trip to Chiswick all by itself. If I'm going to be brutally honest it didn't need the pickled artichoke, which was perfectly nice but a bit of a distraction from the tomatoes, and I'm pretty sure I didn't detect any of the advertised pickled cucumber, but what the hell - that wonderful consommé, and the tomatoes, were all I needed.

A huge, bright chunk of Shetland cod came next, expertly cooked (as you might hope and expect) and breaking into nice defined flakes. But we've all had nice cod before, and you may have even had a courgette flower stuffed with scallop mousse, which came alongside it. What really set this dish apart was a thing called "tartare roe sauce", which was a kind of vinaigrette studded with two different types of roe, which sang with seafood and summer flavours. It was one of those sauces that tasted effortlessly good, and yet you know it took a lot of skill to get right.

There are two types of people, one that can read "Cornish lamb, wild garlic, crispy sweetbread, girolles" and think they want to eat that more than anything else in the world right now, and those that don't. I'm one of the former. The lamb was cooked to pink, the sweetbread was coated in another delicate breadcrumb crust (see also: the pig's head snack), and between them nestled girolles, braised shallot, peas and leaves of wild garlic. And of course, it was all soaked in one of those salty, meaty lamb reductions that only the very best places do well. As a climax to the savoury courses, you could not have asked for more.

But even after all that, the desserts still wowed. I'm slightly allergic to raw cherries, so Silver Birch very kindly subsituted that dish out for some equally wonderful (I'm sure) strawberries, with a rich and zingy strawberry sorbet and bound together with "elderflower cream cheese", a very nice invention.

The final dessert was a brown butter chocolate delice, with milk sorbet and caramelised white chocolate, and despite having polished off seven courses by this point, and fed 6 very generously portioned matching wines, it's still burned into my memory as the most beguiling balance of chocolate and dairy, with texture provided both by a lovely fresh milk sorbet and a quiff of spun sugar on top. It, too, was demolished.

What's interesting about tastings like this, and the Silver Birch in particular, is that you could, at first glance, think that you've seen this kind of thing before. Looking at just the basics of the menu - canapes, bread, snack, veg course, fish course, meat course, dessert 1, dessert 2 - it's a structure that informs more or less any modern British tasting menu, a format repeated up and down the country.

What sets the Silver Birch apart from the 2023 restaurant pack isn't that they're revolutionising the way we eat out, or inventing challenging new flavour pairings or wacky techniques, but instead carefully examining every element of what makes a menu like this work, from the choice of ingredients to the accessible presentation to the skill and detail in all of the sauces and dressings and elements, and making each one absolutely the best it can possibly be. It's an obvious way to win the game, and yet one that very few places have the intelligence and skill to pull off.

So yes, the Silver Birch is quite brilliant. The point off full marks is just for the slightly less than exciting choice of fish (I'd seen John Dory and Dover Sole served in that same dish on social media that same week, but maybe that just serves me right for setting my expectations based on social media), but really there was very little else to complain about. As neighbourhood restaurants go, in fact as any restaurants go, it's right up with the best of them. I'm sure it will do very well indeed.


The food at the Silver Birch was comped, but we paid for our wines.

Monday 7 August 2023

Archway, Battersea Park

Firstly, I have a confession to make. Many years ago I was very kindly treated to lunch at the River Café in Hammersmith, and I didn't like it. I think I was mainly intimidated - by the well-heeled crowd, the scale and the power of that vast dining room and open kitchen, and yes, by the prices, astronomical figures seemingly chosen only to be as shocking as possible to anyone who wasn't a multi-millionare. I gave it a rather grumpy review, then vowed never to return.

Years later, though, I did go back. The River Cafe staff are given very generous discounts from time to time, and encouraged to bring along anyone they want to share the fun. So, curious to see if they - or indeed I - had changed over the years, I found myself taking an afternoon off and joining a staffer friend for lunch.

And I had the time of my life. Everything was briliant, from the atmosphere in that cavernous room to the friendly but extremely capable staff to the exquisitely tasteful and seasonal wood-grilled Italian food, it seemed to be the kind of place where it would be impossible not to enjoy yourself unless you had a giant wood-fired chip on your shoulder, and I felt incredibly stupid for having denied myself it all these years. And if you're thinking "well, he would like it as he wasn't paying", guess what - as soon as that lunch was over I made myself another booking in a couple of weeks' time and paid in full. And I had the time of my life all over again.

So what's all this got to do with Archway? Well, most obviously, it was set up by ex-River Cafe staff, and if nothing else the Hammersmith place has a fantastic track record of sending out its alumni to propagate fantastic pasta around the country. We have them to thank for such names as Sonny Stores in Bristol, Trullo in Islington, and the sadly-departed Zucca in Bermondsey, although we do also have them to blame for Jamie Oliver so the less said about that the better. Anyway, now SW11 has its own little slice of Tuscany-on-the-Thames, and on a wet Wednesday evening I headed down an unlikely dark alleyway underneath Battersea Park station to see if it could carry on the noble tradition.

From an attractively short and straightforward menu, first to arrive were flatbreads, fresh out of a wood-fired oven, one topped with leeks soaked in "brown crab meat butter" (that's poetry right there) and another with gorgonzola, figs and honey. In both, the bread was the star - full of life and crunch and comfort - and though I obviously preferred the one topped with "brown crab meat butter" (I mean, duh), they were both very impressive bits of baking. A good start.

But it was with the arrival of the first pasta dish that Archway really flexed its River Café muscles. Cavatelli with beef ragu was - and I'm not using these words lightly - completely and utterly perfect. Perfect pasta with a perfect bite, a perfect tomato-red wine sauce studded with rich ground beef, perfectly seasoned, perfectly served. Yes, you'd hope a modern Italian restaurant with such a pedigree should be able to knock out a decent bowl of pasta but this was clearly a world class bit of cooking, astonishingly good.

Equally good - and so yes, perfect again - was pappardelle with mushrooms, brown butter and sage, another heavenly combination of bouncy fresh ribbons of pasta, seasonal funghi and heady herbs all soaked in a silky buttery sauce. As a not-very-good cook myself, and particularly when it comes to fresh pasta, I find it hard to pinpoint exactly what sets the good pasta restaurants apart from the great, apart from the fact that some make me pleasantly surprised, and some make me with giddy with utter joy. Archway fits in the latter group.

Fregola "risotto" (fregola are little balls of pasta a bit like tapioca, but nicer obviously) was the base for a selection of fresh clams and mussels studded with just enough chilli to provide and nice buzz above the seafood. There's something incredibly satisfying about eating a forkful of fregola soaked in salty seafood broth, lighter than a risotto but packing the same flavour punch. Dangerously moreish.

As possibly one of the finest pasta restaurants in the country, you really don't need another reason to visit the place. But I'm happy to report that a giant butterflied mackerel was a great demonstration of Archway's skill with grilled fish. The mackerel itself was immaculate, with a dark, crisp skin holding a good amount of fat next to soft and perfectly-timed flesh, and though it would have been nice to have crunchy cubes of toast instead of soggy tomato-bread, the "panzanella" salad dressing was otherwise very nice.

Desserts were generous of portion and of flavour. The strawberry creme brulee was my own favourite, topped with chunks of steeped berries so full of summer colour they practically glowed. And although to this day we couldn't quite decide every ingredient that formed the "torta della nonna" (and completely forgot to ask at the time), the custard filling was expertly balanced by a nice delicate pastry crust. And that's probably all you need to know.

In the interests of this post not turning into a completely two-dimensional gush-fest, I feel duty-bound to point out two things I didn't quite get at Archway. Firstly, the wine list is presented in a font so miniscule, and the lighting in the room was so "romantic", that nobody on our table could read it, so we ended up just pointing at a price and hoping for the best. Fortunately, the Archway's choice of house white is as tasteful as the rest of their operation, so all ended well. Secondly, there are two identical unmarked doors off the main dining room; one leads to the toilets, the other to a store cupboard and office. So there's a potential problem there.

But I am nitpicking, and the fact is there's very little to fault about Archway. Service was friendly and enthusiastic, the room is nicely proportioned (although I think some would find the tables a little too close together, depending on your elbow-room requirements) and the vast open kitchen, stretching back three times as far as the dining room is long, as far as I could gather, is a wonderful focal point and endlessly entertaining as you watch bits and pieces being moved in and out of the wood ovens and grills. And at £64pp it's even at the lower end of the London 2023 restaurant budget spectrum. But never mind all that - just go and eat the pasta. Everything else is a footnote.