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Last updated: April 7, 2012 12:11 am
in the weeks preceding a stay in hospital and a convalescence at home that will, regrettably, force me to spend at least a couple of months away from this column, I took a hardline approach to my choice of restaurants.
I was in no mood for surprises or disappointments, so when meeting business colleagues I suggested places where I felt sure we would not be let down. The Giaconda Dining Room in Soho, Great Queen Street in Covent Garden, Zucca in Bermondsey Street and Galvin Bistrot de Luxe on Baker Street all lived up to their reputation. And they also reminded me how gratifying restaurants that are both privately owned and personally managed can be.
These two factors unite these four restaurants, although I did not appreciate at the outset that I would also be enjoying them in size order: from very small to medium.
Certainly, nothing could get smaller than The Giaconda Dining Room, where Australian chef Paul Merrony cooks in a white hat and apron, and his wife Tracey controls the 25 customers that the restaurant can seat at full capacity.
Merrony’s menu turns his very cramped kitchen to his advantage. Each main course is served fully garnished, so he does not have to bother with side dishes. A crumble of creamed shallots, mushrooms and horseradish came straight from the oven. He had already smoked his own salmon that came with grated celeriac as another starter. Brill wrapped in ham was finished in the oven; spaghettini with crab was tossed in the pan.
But, best of all, the restaurant’s size yields two sensory delights that bigger restaurants cannot match: the heady allure of the cooking aromas and the very appreciative comments overheard from other tables.
These two phenomena could almost be matched at Zucca as it is not much bigger, but the acoustics make eavesdropping more difficult. However, the food and wine more than compensated.
Zucca’s culinary attractions are its range of great-value first courses, particularly a combination of warm purple sprouting broccoli topped with salted ricotta; its pasta dishes, especially corda – twirled lengths coated in a pork ragú with a hint of chilli; and its excellent pastry chef, who on this occasion produced a panna cotta with rhubarb and a moist blood orange cake.
Zucca’s wine list with its kind prices has always been a huge bonus. The red wine of the week on our visit was the Ornellaia 2007 at £15 a glass. Only views of the magical duomo were missing from this quasi-Florentine setting.
My views at Great Queen Street were far more mundane – through open shelves to chefs working away and of a blackboard, but the latter offered two alluring dishes: a jellied egg as a starter and a shoulder of venison for two as a main course.
Both these dishes are typical of the culinary talents of the team that opened and then renovated the Anchor & Hope near Waterloo, before weaving the same magic on The Magdalen Arms in Oxford and the Canton Arms in Lambeth.
The jellied egg, served in a small glass, had been cooked and then set in a clear consommé and was served with capers, gherkins and home-made crisps. Equally delicious were Spaetzle noodles with black kale and mushrooms; a quail griddled and served alongside sweet and sour aubergines; and one stunning dessert, a ramekin topped with meringue, under which lurked a creamy filling laced with tangy slivers of Seville oranges.
My final lunch, at Galvin Bistrot de Luxe, began with a demonstration of how brothers Chris and Jeff Galvin keep abreast of their expanding business. (Their latest outpost, Demoiselle, a 50-seater café/bistro, has just opened at Harrods.) They looked like businessmen in civvies, each sporting a large briefcase, but pulled down their roll-neck sweaters to reveal chef’s whites underneath.
The cooks the Galvins left in charge showed their mettle. We both started with a dish of imam bayildi, before moving on to a fillet of cod with a leek and potato fondue and an immaculate rendition of caramelised veal brains.
The only sadness came when my guest revealed that, prior to an operation, he had to lose two stone, so had to turn down dessert. We commiserated with each other, and vowed to return as soon as possible.
During Nicholas Lander’s absence, Tim Hayward will be the FT’s regular restaurant critic
The Giaconda Dining Room
9 Denmark St, W1; tel: +44 (0)20 7240 3334, www.giacondadining.com
184 Bermondsey St, SE1; tel: +44 (0)20 7378 6809, www.zuccalondon.com
Great Queen Street
32 Great Queen St, WC2; tel: +44 (0)20 7242 0622
Galvin Bistrot de Luxe
66 Baker Street, W1; tel: +44 (0)20 7935 4007, www.galvinrestaurants.com
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