All restaurants have distinct personalities, just like people. And, just like people, we encounter them in different ways: you might meet them by chance, or be introduced to them by friends. You decide you’d like to see them again, and over time the relationships you have with some restaurants become friendships themselves. You introduce your other friends to these places and you’re delighted when they hit it off, sad when they don’t quite gel.
Restaurants can be many different kinds of friends. There are the ones you see all the time, because they’re your neighbours, or the ones that live further away that you have to make an effort to visit. Ones you go to when you want to be cheered up by a night of dumb fun, and the ones you’re drawn to for a deep and meaningful evening. Ones where you can be yourself and come as you are, and ones where you must dress up and be on your best behaviour, become a marginally improved version of yourself.
Sometimes you don’t go to a restaurant for a long time, and when you return you’re reminded of exactly why you liked them. I saw one of my oldest friends a few weeks ago, the first time since last March, and although we had much to discuss, in all important respects we picked up where we’d left off. Some restaurants are like that. Restaurants see us at our best and our worst and they welcome us all the same, and conversely we forgive their off days, as we overlook them with people we care about.
And, of course, those sometimes friendships end. We drift apart, our tastes change, we move towns, we lose them in divorces. Sometimes the restaurant simply ceases to be, and we mourn it. But there are always new restaurants to go to, new friends to make. Of course restaurants are like friends: we celebrate with them, we commiserate with them. We spend time with some of them to forget momentarily about our own lives, with others because they have become part of our lives.
That’s the genius of restaurants and the friendships they create. The best restaurants connect us to something bigger than us, they build a community. If you didn’t know that before, surely the last year and a half has written it in big. Look at the outpouring on social media when Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen reopened after sixteen months. It was like a friend coming home after far too long away. Some people felt surprisingly emotional when they went through those doors again, me included.
One of my oldest friendships, as restaurants go, is with Medlar in Chelsea. It’s been open for ten years, in which time it’s been written up by most restaurant critics, gained a Michelin star, lost it for reasons nobody could really fathom and dealt with it by shrugging and carrying on regardless. I must have been going to Medlar for eight years or so, with friends and family, pre and post divorce. I’ve introduced all manner of people to the joy of Medlar. The prices on the prix fixe have gained a few pounds over the years, but so have I. On my last visit, pre-pandemic, I took Zoë there to pop her Medlar cherry. We’d not been together long at that point, and I wondered what she’d make of it, but I needn’t have worried. She was an instant convert. She ordered better than me: I didn’t realise, at the time, that this was the shape of things to come.
When a restaurant has traded for ten years it becomes largely immune to trends, but, far from the hype machine, it risks getting forgotten. I went through a phase of eating at much-hyped London restaurants, the latest big thing each time, and I usually came away thinking “that was okay I guess, but I wouldn’t go back”. But Medlar wasn’t like that: I never had a bad meal, and even the least magnificent was on the money. So when I decided to go to London a few weeks back I asked on Twitter if anybody had any recommendations for al fresco dining. I’m sure the places mentioned in my replies would all have been worthy choices, but in the back of my mind I was always thinking or I could go back to Medlar: I was delighted when none of the suggestions caused me to hesitate, even for a second.
Medlar is in Chelsea, but not the nice part. If you go down the Kings Road it’s all very chi-chi until the Bluebird building (which Zoë tells me features frequently in Made In Chelsea: fucked if I know, I’ve never watched it) and then it starts to get scruffy. The Brutalist World’s End Estate – could a name conjure less hope? – is across the way and although Medlar itself looks genteel from the outside, it looks out on a branch of Mail Boxes Etc, over the road.
Inside though, all is peaceful and calm. It’s a long thin room broken up into sections – a beautiful one at the back with sunshine flooding through a skylight, a middle one full of booths, all smart mint-green button-backed banquettes, and a plainer room at the front. We initially had booked one of the tables outside but the sun was scorching, so we moved to a table next to the open French doors, mini John Lewis fans on the table, whirring away. There were perspex screens between the tables, and everything felt safe and well spaced.
Medlar runs a prix fixe menu for lunch and dinner, and lunch has always been a steal: I remember when it was thirty pounds for a three course lunch, outrageous value, but even now at forty pounds it still feels reasonable. There are seven options for each course, and some – crab raviolo with bisque sauce, duck egg tart with duck hearts and lardons – have been on the menu so long I imagine they have protected status. Perhaps that’s why they lost their Michelin star, for not being seasonal enough, but I’ve had both those classics more than once and I’d rather they kept the dishes than kept the star.
We started with a pair of stunning aged Comte gougeres. It was odd to taste Comte without that familiar crystalline grit, but odd in a good way, and the pastry was dense yet airy. By this point we’d been served a choice of bread from a wooden tray (Medlar’s focaccia is another thing of wonder) and we’d been brought water and a glass full of ice cubes, which was regularly taken away and replenished throughout our meal. We’d chosen our wine, and everything was right in my little world. A proper lunch, a leisurely one where you get through a bottle of wine and have nowhere you need to be afterwards, is a holiday in its own right, if you choose the right place.
Speaking of wine, that was the first misstep. We’d ordered a bottle of Riesling by Pegasus Bay, a stellar producer from New Zealand. They brought it, opened it and then explained that it wasn’t cold enough. So they poured a little into our glasses and took it away to try and get it colder quickly. But they didn’t succeed, because it was only reached the right temperature at the end of the meal, by which time we’d drunk most of it. It was still a fantastic wine, but we had it far from its best: given that it cost around sixty pounds I’d have expected them to give us the option to choose another, rather than opening it when it was barely chilled.
But the food was as good as I remembered. As on our previous visit, Zoë picked the best of the starters – thin slices of pork loin served in a sauce almost like a consommé, topped with thin, crisp onion rings, salty splinters of pecorino, girolles, cubes of fondant potato and a grassy, intense salsa verde. It was a dish where you could construct an almost infinite number of different forkfuls, each of them magical, and I looked at it with a level of envy that only intensified when I tried it.
“Pork, onion, potato and cheese – no wonder I love this dish” said Zoë. “It’s the Irish in me” (I look forward to the day when she has the passport to prove it).
I could have, should have gone for one of my favourite starters from the menu, for old time’s sake. But it was a hot day and I wanted to avoid the tried and tested, so I chose the gazpacho. If I wasn’t absolutely bowled over by it, that’s probably because it’s a soft-spoken dish even when done as skilfully and fastidiously as this. The cubes of scallop were super-fresh, pristine and elegant, but if I’d known it was padded out with cucumber – I’ve never been a fan – I would have chosen something else. Superb olive oil had been used but didn’t break through, hesitantly clearing its throat when it should have sung. Cobnuts added texture and a second dimension, but overall it was too mild-mannered for me. I consoled myself with another piece of focaccia.
By this time the restaurant was filling up. They charge reasonable corkage at lunchtime, which explained one chap lugging what appeared to be a jeroboam of claret. Medlar clearly has a reputation and a regular clientele, because many of the diners were well-upholstered: a florid, blazered buffer at the next table was humblebragging away to his friends (“I’m still seven hundred pounds in credit with the Royal Opera House” being one gem). I’ve missed people watching, and watching these people was another level completely from sitting in the Workhouse courtyard, seeing who wanders past.
Zoë’s main is a mainstay of the Medlar menu and if she hadn’t ordered it I would have – glorious, soft rump of beef, served pink and fanned out with blobs of shallot purée, along with a portobello mushroom stuffed with snails in Café De Paris butter. You also got a side salad and a hefty helping of a beautifully made Béarnaise, with an almost medicinal hum of tarragon. Zoë was sceptical about the snails in particular but I talked her into ordering it, reasoning that if she didn’t like them I could swap with her – so of course, when it came to it, she loved the whole lot. Again, no two forkfuls need be the same, but every forkful was marvellous.
My dish – bit of a theme here – was good but not at the same level. Barbary duck came pink, also fanned out (they love a bit of fanning around at Medlar) on mange tout, with a jug of a fantastically sticky jus. But the second half of the dish, the confit duck tart, was problematic. It felt like it had wandered in from a completely different meal, one where you wouldn’t have a sticky jus. But also, it wasn’t a tart: plonking ingredients on a thin disc of pastry as a means of displaying them doesn’t constitute a tart, however much you might want it to. So the stuff on the edible coaster – the confit duck, roasted courgette and tomato, the ribbons of fennel, even the almost-rubbery ricotta gnocchi – were very nice, but they had nothing to do with the rest. I know the weather lately has made us all uncertain whether it’s summer or winter: this dish had a similar identity crisis.
We ordered chips to go with both distinctly carb-free dishes. They come with more of that marvellous Béarnaise, but usually they’re better than they were that day: they didn’t have that brittle crunch they needed, although as a vehicle for tarragon-infused indulgence they did just fine.
The dessert course comes with suggested pairings, and this was the first time the restaurant felt truly pricey: the cheapest dessert wine came in at a tenner but the rest were in the region of fifteen pounds for a glass. I liked my Beerenauslese, which had a note of sharpness alongside the sweetness, and Zoë loved her Australian Riesling. But neither was worth quite that much money.
Never mind: gladly the dessert we’d both chosen properly saved the day. It was a festival of chocolate and cherry, a deep dark delice surrounded by dots of cherry and griottine cherries, crowned with an orb of almond ice cream and a brittle tuille made from cocoa nibs. The almond ice cream – extraordinarily smooth, with hints of marzipan – and the cherry lent the dish a touch of Bakewell, and the whole thing amounted to a proper desert island dessert. We ate it in silence, interrupted only by the duffer at the next table holding forth to his unfortunate friends.
As we waited for our bill, the staff brought over one last treat, velvety chocolate truffles and pieces of marshmallow which tasted of sweet, concentrated passion fruit, a little miracle. Aside from our slightly lukewarm wine, service was perfect – attentive but nicely distant, very efficient indeed, far better than service I’ve had at places which have retained their Michelin star (l’Ortolan springs to mind). Our three course meal, with a bottle of wine and a couple of glasses of dessert wine – and those gougeres right at the start – came to two hundred pounds, which included an optional 12.5% service charge.
We left nicely full, edges a tad blurred, and strolled down the Kings Road, pausing now and again to stumble into a(nother) ridiculously expensive boutique. Exactly how many branches of Joe & The Juice does one road need? I thought to myself (the answer, as far as the Kings Road is concerned, is two). I tried on crazy glasses in Moscot – it turns out that Woody Allen-style glasses are best left to Allen – we ambled round Peter Jones, we walked to Belgravia and made a pilgrimage to Les Senteurs, one of my favourite shops on the planet. In the sunshine, you could nearly convince yourself that the city was almost normal.
So yes, it wasn’t a perfect meal. And Medlar might not have been completely at the top of its game when I visited them, but even on a relative off day they could teach pretty much any restaurant in Reading a thing or two – about food, about service, and about doing the same thing day in, day out for years, without getting bored, rebranding or chasing fads. It’s an underestimated quality in restaurateurs: the patience to build something up, to stay focused, to not lose interest. And if I picked Medlar up and dropped it, say, in the space Bill’s is currently wasting they would easily be one of the best restaurants the town has ever had. For my part, it was an absolute pleasure to go to London and catch up with an old friend. All things considered, I’d say they’re doing pretty well. I won’t leave it so long next time.
Medlar – 7.9
438 King’s Road, Chelsea, London SW10 0LJ