Restaurant review: Chick ‘N’ Sours, Covent Garden

This week’s review came about for a fairly simple reason. Two weeks ago I went to London with my friend James, with an uncomplicated plan: to visit Casa do Frango in Piccadilly to see if it did the best piri piri chicken outside Portugal (regular readers may have already read that review). A couple of days before the big day, I got a text from him.

“Do you think we could do the holy trinity? Two chicken places with craft beer in between?”

I immediately knew where he was referring to. Could we? Should we? Was this Bacchanalian excess even by my standards?

“Are you suggesting… Chick ‘N’ Sours?”

“Yes. Two in a day.”

And so I made a dinner reservation a suitable interval from lunch, had a light meal the night before, skipped breakfast and wore my loosest garments on the train to Paddington. Two of London’s best-known chicken restaurants in a single day was a serious endeavour. As I was heading for Gare du Ding my phone pinged with a text from James: It’s Chicken Day. Praise be the Lord.

Chick ‘N’ Sours might be the capital’s most fêted fried chicken restaurant. Their first permanent premises were in Haggerston, on the edge of Dalston, and when Grace Dent, then at the Evening Standard, went in 2015 she raved about the place. The following year they set up shop in Covent Garden, just off Seven Dials, and the acclaim has been constant ever since; Marina O’Loughlin, then at the Guardian, visited the second branch in late 2016 and enthused in her inimitable manner.

Since then they have been universally praised to the rafters: even the FT and the stuffy old Telegraph rated the food there, the latter in a so this is what the kids are eating these days kind of way. By now it feels like every half-decent blogger under the sun has paid it a visit, along with a number who only aspire to that standard. So after a very enjoyable time at the Mikkeller Brewpub on Exmouth Market, sampling terrific al fresco beers and finally feeling like spring had sprung, James and I pulled up in an Uber to try it out. Better late than never.

Chick ‘N’ Sours is a basement restaurant, and like all the best basement restaurants it has a slightly illicit feel to it. It sits somewhere between speakeasy and dive bar – neither of which, by the way, is a pejorative term – with faux zinc tables and chairs that are a mixture of Fifties American diner and Fifties British classroom. Our table was next to four office bros who had clearly fallen into the pub straight from work and then fallen into the restaurant straight from the pub. They were making inroads into what looked like most of the menu; turned out not everybody works from home on a Friday after all.

The menu is a vegetarian’s worst nightmare. Most of it involves chicken in a starring role, with the exception of one small plate and a vegan burger made of goodness knows what: it’s not a menu that even pretends to make concessions. It’s also compact – just the three starters, four burgers, chicken on the bone and tenders. You can have wings if you want, and there are a handful of sides, but that’s very much your lot; one other option, a whole deep fried chicken, is available if you give them forty-eight hours’ notice, which we sadly didn’t.

The tendency to pepper a menu like this with puns or edgy references has fortunately passed Chick ‘N’ Sours by, in the main, although describing a condiment as “seaweed crack” did strike me as unnecessary – showing my age, probably – and I was curious about the “strange flavour sauce” that came with the bang bang cucumber, although not enough to order it. For a restaurant with this reputation in this part of Covent Garden, prices are reasonable – starters are around seven quid, burgers thirteen, sides about four. It was a menu full of bold flavours and gastronomic primary colours, and it made me excited about what was to come.

That’s the “chick”, so to speak. The “sours” element comes from the restaurant’s stripped-back drinks list, made up of a narrow selection of wine (one of each, if you catch my drift), a couple of beers and the four sour cocktails that give the restaurant the second half of its name. James went for a “Chick ‘N’ Club” – typing all these unnecessary apostrophes is starting to irk me, just so you know – a fruity gin and crème de mure concoction which he seemed to thoroughly enjoy.

I on the other hand chose something called the “Habanero Jungle Bird” with rum, Campari, lime vinegar and habanero in it. This, perhaps, is where the problems started to come in: I expected this to do a truly chaotic conga in my gob, that combination of hot and sour, so when it was muted I wondered what that might mean for the food we were about to eat.

The thing is, every review I’ve read of Chick ‘N’ Sours talks about how you get walloped by massive flavours from start to finish and emerge at the end sweating buckets, palate ravaged, desperate for more and feeling alive for the first time in years: or maybe it’s the “seaweed crack”, you never know. One review I read, and I’m not even paraphrasing, said “I know they do good fried chicken because I have really good tastebuds” (see? there are bloggers out there even more unbearable than me).

The high point of the meal, ironically of the whole day, was the first thing they put in front of us. Chicken toast – think sesame prawn toast but with chicken instead – was a really, really outstanding plate of food: clever, delicious and beautifully executed. Three hefty pieces of chicken toast, lacquered with a sauce they called “chilli tamarind caramel”, surely the best what3words of all time, and served with a simple sesame studded slaw.

Honestly, they could just call the restaurant Toast ‘N’ Sours, sling these out all day and I’d have liked the place considerably more. I wish we’d ordered one each, with one on the side for good luck. But in the wider context of the meal it felt like a breakout star in search of a spinoff, a Saul Goodman or a Frasier Crane. Nothing else we ate would approach those heights.

Take the Mexinese nachos, for example. I read up on these after the fact and everything I saw made me pine for a dish that, in truth, I feel I never had. They come, apparently, loaded with Szechuan chicken and bacon ragu, kimchee, chilli and cheese sauce in a sort of multi-continental mashup of epic proportions. The review in the Guardian talks about fermented chilli paste and a touch of anchovy, the FT talks about gochujang. With all that thrown haphazardly into the mix, the risk is that it would be a bit much, that you’d be asking them to show a bit of restraint. In reality it was a slightly forlorn plate of food, of nachos draped in thin mince and tasting of not enough.

Wings, “disco wings” according to the menu, were better. James liked them – and he’s more a wing aficionado than I am – whereas I thought they were okay. You had a choice of naked, kung pao or hot and we’d picked the latter. It was still what James likes to refer to as “white people hot”, but was plenty hot enough for me. The wings, properly tossed rather than sauced, were decent enough – and if I wasn’t wowed that’s probably because I’m the sort of heathen who never feels this kind of thing balances reward and effort as I’d like. “They would have benefited from not being breaded” was James’ comment, as part of our post match analysis. “A naked fried wing tossed in that sauce would have been much better.”

Mains arrived before we’d finished our starters, which at least gave us an excuse to abandon the nachos. I’d heard from a few people that the House Fry – drumstick and thigh on the bone with pickled watermelon – was the thing to order, but when James tried to he was told they didn’t have any.

Instead he went for my regular order in places like this, the tenders, and they were positively underwhelming. You got three of them, big flattened pieces of chicken, and having gazed lovingly at a fair few pictures of Chick ‘N’ Sours’ food online I can honestly say they’ve always looked more golden, more crinkle-edged, more alluring than this. These looked like they could have been bought from the chiller section of Marks or Waitrose and finished off in the oven, beige-blond boring things.

James concurred. “The coating wasn’t great – it lacked crunch, too soft. It needed another two minutes in the fryer” he told me. “They could have been seasoned better coming out of the fryer, too.” He dipped them in his gochujang mayo, but didn’t finish them. And James, like me, is not a man to leave fried chicken.

My burger, the K-Pop, also failed to shine. This was chicken thigh with, again, a riot of flavour shoved on it – gochujang mayo, sriracha sour cream and chilli vinegar. Again, it just sounded so good: I’m used to the heavenly combination of gochujang and sriracha from Gurt Wings’ outstanding Lost In Translation fried chicken, so I had high hopes.

How did this manage to taste of so little? And how had they managed, while achieving that, to also put so much gunk in there that the bun underneath soaked through, making it almost impossible to eat? Normally a restaurant needs to outgrow its two small branches, fall into bed with some venture capitalists and roll out all the way to Reading to be this middling: how had Chick ‘N’ Sours pulled it off without doing all that?

I feel like I’ve already said enough, but let’s dot the Is and cross the Ts of disappointment by talking about the remainder of the food.

For some reason they brought us an additional portion of chips, by way of apology. Initially I wasn’t sure what for, then I thought it might be because they didn’t have the house fry, but with hindsight I think it might have just been for the food in general. It’s interesting that Chick ‘N’ Sours’ menu makes much of their chips being cooked in beef dripping and yet they turned out to be fairly indifferent, while earlier that day Casa do Frango had made no bold claims about their fries and they were infinitely superior.

Oh, and we also had a pickled watermelon salad. Ever wondered what pickled watermelon tastes like? Me too, and I’m still wondering: this just tasted of watermelon.

You get the general jist by now. I spent a little time looking at the other tables – the place was doing a roaring trade – and wondering what I was missing; I’ve rarely felt so much of the emperor’s new clothes about a restaurant as I did that night in Covent Garden. And that’s not to say it was an awful meal, but it was an ordinary one. Service was pleasant, if brisk, and the one thing I can say is that, especially for that part of London, it was affordable: all those starters, sides and mains and a couple of cocktails each came to a hundred and six pounds, including service.

This has to be one of the weirdest summaries I’ve ever had to write, of a place I’ve wanted to visit for something like five years, of a place which in theory serves some of my favourite food and which everyone, and I mean everyone, loves. The only logical conclusion, really, is that I’m wrong and that if fried chicken is your thing and you find yourself in the centre of London this is the place to head for. Everybody else says so. It’s me: I’m wrong, and I don’t know why I’m so out of step.

It could be expectation – that I thought the place would be incredible and so, when it was merely quite good, I felt like the sky had fallen in. But I don’t know if it’s even that; I guess my expectations were that it would be even better than Eat The Bird, which I encountered and loved on a recent visit to Exeter. But in reality it didn’t come close to their food, and if you asked me which one I’d want to open a branch on my doorstep it would be Eat The Bird every time.

All that makes this review especially frustrating, of somewhere I hoped to love, wanted to love, expected to love but just didn’t. A so-so review of somewhere in London you were probably never going to visit anyway. That’s the thing about these reviews outside Reading – when they’re a belter they’re fun to write, hopefully fun to read, and everybody wins. But when they’re mediocre, the so what factor is sadly lacking. So I must apologise: hopefully better, and more local, restaurants lie in both our futures.

Or maybe I just have really shit tastebuds. It’s a distinct possibility.

Chick ‘N’ Sours – 6.8
1A Earlham Street, Covent Garden, London WC2H 9LL
020 31984814

https://www.chicknsours.co.uk

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Restaurant review: Casa do Frango, Piccadilly

This week’s review came about for a simple reason: I went to Nando’s. Six weeks ago Zoë and I were in town on a slow Sunday lunchtime, neither of us could face cooking that evening and we longed for the comfort of a known quantity. Judge all you like, but when I feel that way Nando’s makes it on to my long list, which means that occasionally it makes the shortlist, and sometimes it winds up on the podium.

I mean the Friar Street branch – no offence if you prefer the one in the Oracle – and my usual order is butterflied chicken, medium, with macho peas, spicy rice, garlic piri-piri sauce on the side. It always delivers, and it did on this occasion: I left sated and happy, putting a picture on Instagram to show that I’m not all preaching and indies. Later that day I got a message from my friend James (last seen on this blog living it up in Marmo).

“I’ve recently cracked how Nando’s do their chicken” it said. This was a very James thing to say: naturally I was intrigued.

“Don’t they just cook it, keep it in a drawer and then finish it on the grill after you’ve ordered it?”

“They slowly cook the chicken at about 90 degrees over a couple of hours, almost poached in a basic marinade.Then they grill and layer on the piri piri multiple times to create a layer of flavour: baste, seal and grill, turn, baste etc.”

Doing this sort of painstaking research was also very James. But better was to come, because when Zoë and I went to stay with him and his partner Liz over Easter weekend, he went a step further. “I’m going to recreate it”, he said. He was true to his word, so one night we sat down to the most glorious slow-cooked, basted and grilled piri piri chicken. James cooked the chicken, Liz made the macho peas, the coleslaw and fries were from the supermarket. The whole affair was even more soothing than the real thing: Nandos-esque rather than just Nandos-ish, if that makes sense.

“The place I keep meaning to try is Casa do Frango.” I said, between mouthfuls. “They started out with one near London Bridge and now they have three across the city.”

“Let’s do it!” said James.“I’d love to accompany you.” So we did: some people might find this eccentric, but James and I booked a Friday off work and headed to London on the train, on a pilgrimage for the best piri piri chicken outside Portugal.

Casa do Frango (the house of chicken: in Portuguese it sounds far more exotic than, say, the hut of pizza) came to my attention five years ago when the original branch got a glowing review in the Observer. And I always intended to go at some point, to see if it could get anywhere near the best piri piri chicken I’ve ever had, in a little Lisbon alleyway. That was at a place called Bonjardim and it remains a real death row food memory, the skin brittle and intense, rubbed with lemon and salt, the meat underneath a yielding feast. Nando’s, much as I like it, has never displaced it in my memory, but perhaps Casa do Frango could.

For this review I decided to visit Casa do Frango’s newest, most central branch. It’s on Heddon Street, just off Regent Street and a stone’s throw from Liberty, and I picked it partly because it’s become their flagship, partly because it fitted better with our plans for the rest of the day but mainly, in truth, with you lot in mind. After all, a decent affordable place to eat not far from from Piccadilly Circus might potentially be of use to a lot of you (although not one of my readers who recently got in touch to tell me that, although he read the blog religiously every week, the recent ones hadn’t been hugely useful given that he was allergic to chicken – sorry Tom!).

On the way in I realised that it must be the best part of three years since I’d set foot in central London, over three years since I’d taken the Tube. That means I’m a tedious Johnny-come-lately when it comes to how game-changing the Elizabeth Line is to Bond Street (although I enjoyed my guided tour of the Elizabeth Line, thanks to James who is quite the public transport enthusiast). It also meant I wasn’t prepared for how quiet it was on a Friday – not Vanilla Sky Times Square levels, but I’d never seen Regent Street so sparsely populated. “Thursday is the new Friday” said James.“Everyone’s working from home today.”

Heddon Street is a little alley literally lined with restaurants – a ramen place, an outpost of Gordon Ramsay’s empire, a pub called The Starman (the cover of Ziggy Stardust was shot outside) and a café called Ziggy Green, because people are nothing if not unimaginative. We walked past Michelin-starred Sabor, which looked gorgeous inside (“I’ve been, it’s great” ventured James) and I wondered if I’d have restaurant regret. But Casa do Frango is a handsome-looking spot, and I loved the tiles outside reading RUA HEDDON. The muggy drizzle said we were in London, but it still had the potential to be transformative.

It’s a big site, with two large dining rooms upstairs, some private dining and a very swish-looking speakeasy bar downstairs. We were in the back dining room, their first customers, ultra keen at high noon. It was a great space, ceiling fans whirring, the whole thing surprisingly well lit, tasteful bentwood chairs, brick, tile and warm burnt orange tones. We got a good table up against the wall so we both got a view of the dining room, and it slowly filled up over time. They lunch later in London, the lucky blighters.

The menu only has one main course – that chicken – so it’s all about the starters and sides. The chicken is twelve fifty – back in 2018 when the Observer visited it was still less than a tenner – but most of the small plate starters (billed as “to share”) clocked in between eight and ten. Technically you could eat here as a vegetarian, if you were dragged here, but you’d find it all foreplay and no shagging, so to speak.

I was particularly impressed with the drinks list. The compact selection of cocktails is more than skin deep Portuguese, so licor Beirão and ginjinha both make an appearance: I have happy memories of both. The wine list is one hundred per cent Portuguese, even down to the dessert wines, with a separate section for vinho verde, much of which is available by the glass. Even the port is the lesser-spotted Offley rather than a bigger name. We started with a gorgeous, zesty white port and tonic – I picked up the habit for these in Porto five years ago, they can quite make you forget about G&T – and made our choices.

To begin, that meant trying to eat a representative sample of the small plates. Bacalhau fritters were the best of them – salt cod is one of my favourite things about Portuguese food and these were light-shelled with the perfect balance of carby potato lending bulk and the fish landing the perfect hit of flavour. The aioli, golden and sunny, rounded things off nicely, though I wasn’t sure they needed to glue the croquettes to the dish with more of the stuff.

The pork croquettes were also decent enough, although they lacked the same wow factor. These were served with a mustard bechamel I liked slightly less, and although the flavour of the croquettes was good, the texture suitably silky, I couldn’t help thinking we’d ordered two dishes too similar. The chorizo, grilled with black olive mayo and pickled chillies, might have been a better choice. The croquettes and the fritters, at eight pounds, felt a tiny bit sharp for what you got.

I did love the salgadinhos – little empanadas stuffed with kale, mushroom and onion – though. It’s interesting how the mind can be redirected by pricing: at two pounds each these were technically the same price as a single croquette or fritter, but they felt bigger, better and better value. The salt flakes liberally sprinkled on top gave each mouthful a pleasing little saline spike.

Our final starter promised much but didn’t entirely deliver. A whole head of cauliflower, marinated so effectively in piri piri that its centre had a pinkish tinge, had been charred and then drowned in a vivid green slick of yoghurt and pistachio. Eating this dish felt like reading a well-written novel and not enjoying it as much as I thought I should. Everything worked – the flesh of the cauli firm, the sharp tang of the yoghurt augmented with lime – but by the end it felt like a slog. If the other small plates were a little small, paradoxically this could have benefited from being smaller.

The eponymous chicken arrived as we’d polished off a cold glass of Super Bock. This is where I’d love to dust off my hyperbole but instead, I fear I’ll be delivering some faint praise. There was literally nothing not to like, but perhaps nothing to rhapsodise over either. You get half a chicken per person, and yes, it was juicy and swimming in brick-red juices (“the key is to use smaller chickens” said James, knowingly). But the flip side is that tender though it was, there wasn’t masses of meat and some of it took more persuading off the bone than I’d expected. I was hoping for that hit of crispy skin, too, but the whole thing felt a tiny bit underpowered.

It didn’t compare to my memories of Bonjardim – perhaps the power of nostalgia meant it never could – but I wasn’t sure it was better than the rendition at Casa do James, either. I should add that James liked it more than I did, and he has the added benefit of knowing what he is talking about. We both largely eschewed the little tub of piri piri sauce it came with – “that’s for tourists”, said James – instead trying to get every bit of the glossy, spicy oil coating the bottom of the steel plate.

I should also mention the surprise MVP of our meal, hidden at the back of the photo above. Casa do Frango’s chips are nothing to look at – verging on blond and, on appearances, unlikely to deliver much. In reality they were phenomenal – salty with huge amounts of crunch and staying hot, seemingly, for ages. They didn’t have to be this good, god knows the ones from Nando’s rarely are, and yet this was the dish James and I kept coming back to for the rest of the afternoon. Those fries, though.

Perhaps the reason the chicken was lacking in crispy skin is because Casa do Frango had the genius idea of stabbing huge shards of it into its African rice. This was a phenomenal side, the rice studded with chorizo and sticky plantain and, with the exception of a few clumps, virtually flawless. If they sold a side that was just a bowl of crispy chicken skin I’d have bought several. And taken a doggy bag.

Our final side of Hispi cabbage, though, was too similar to that cauliflower starter, being a brassica charred and festooned with yoghurt. This one was accented with red pepper and a parsley sauce a little like a chimichurri or salsa verde. But even more than the cauliflower, this felt more like a virtuous trudge than an indulgence. The way it was plated was frustrating, too: one wedge of cabbage was perched on top of the other, with the end result that only one of them, really, was properly dressed.

I was ambivalent about dessert, but James had his heart set on one – for research purposes, no doubt – and so we acquiesced. It helped that we accompanied them with a glorious glass each of Moscatel de Setubal: Portugal never gets the credit it deserves for its superb dessert wines and this one was a glowing schooner of sweet, sweet sunshine (I neglected to mention the vinho verde we had with our chicken: superb and ever so slightly effervescent). The service was excellent throughout and our server steered James in the direction of the almond cake which she said was her favourite – she couldn’t eat gluten, which was part of why she loved it so much, but James adored it too.

Settling into my role as designated party pooper, I had a pastel de nata. Well, you have to: any coffee without one in Portugal feels like a coffee missing its soulmate. And although Casa do Frango’s looked the part, it was a fascinating study in contrasts where everything was not quite as it should have been – the pastry, which should be ethereally light, was heavy going and the custard, which should be just-firm with a little wobble, was gloopy. I should have seen the warning signs when they brought it with a teaspoon. What kind of egg custard tart needs to be eaten with a teaspoon? This one, it turns out.

So a proper mixed bag, with plenty to celebrate. But, like Joni Mitchell in Both Sides Now, I worry that it’s Casa do Frango’s illusions I recall. So let’s try and focus on the positives – the wine list is fantastic, some of the small plates are delicious, that rice will live long in my memory and I’m still astonished that the fries were so much better than they looked at first blush. The service – attentive, endearingly laconic, properly Portuguese – was a joy and every bit worth the twelve and a half per cent. It’s a beautiful room and, as I discovered on a foray to the basement, the handwash in the gents smells heavenly.

But I do wonder if the things I really enjoyed about this meal were more about the context of the meal than the food itself. I was on a day off, on a Friday with a good friend, with nothing to do but drift from restaurant to shop to bar to restaurant again. I was in London properly for the first time in eons and it almost felt like we had the city to ourselves. In those circumstances, many meals would feel special. It’s important to try and push that slightly to one side and focus on what we ate.

The whole thing – all that food and four different alcoholic drinks apiece – came to a hundred and sixty pounds, including the service charge. And that’s where you have to stop and think. Is the place better than Nando’s? Objectively yes, of course it is. Is it easily three or four times better than the significantly cheaper Nando’s? I’m not so sure about that. Does it command grudging affection like Nando’s? No, I’m afraid it doesn’t.

And, on Heddon Street at least, Nando’s isn’t even its competition. If you’re in this part of town there are plenty of other ways to spend your money at superior reimaginings of nationwide chains – a short walk away off Carnaby Street, for instance, you could stop into Pizza Pilgrims. It may be a step up from the likes of Franco Manca and Pizza Express, but if you manage to spend a hundred and sixty pounds between two there I’d be very surprised.

The strangest thing about my visit is this: even though pedestrian old Nando’s is an identikit recreated across the country, without the beautiful decor and attention to detail of any of Casa do Frango’s sites, I found this visit made me appreciate the former more than the latter. In fact, shameful confession time: I went back to Friar Street in between visiting Casa do Frango and publishing this review, just to check that I wasn’t on mushrooms, and I stand by what I’ve said. Doubtless that will get me excommunicated from the Guild Of Food Snobs, and I know I’m disagreeing with Jay Rayner again. But would you expect any less from me by now?

Casa do Frango – 7.1
31-33 Heddon Street, London, W1B 4BL
020 35355900

https://casadofrango.co.uk

Restaurant review: Antica Osteria Bologna, Clapham Junction

For fuck’s sake, it’s Edible Reading, not Edible Clapham Junction.

I know, I know (Happy New Year to you too, by the way). But I found myself in the vicinity of arguably the United Kingdom’s most minging train station one January weekend – on an unsatisfactory excursion spectacle shopping, since you ask – and I always think it’s well worth structuring an expedition like that around lunch. That way if the shopping’s a bust, as it turned out to be, and the station is a hellscape, which it very much was, there’s still an outside chance of salvaging the day.

Not that I was in Clapham, by the way. I was shopping and mooching in an area that isn’t quite Clapham, isn’t quite Battersea, is a ten minute walk from Clapham Junction and is really rather lovely. Northcote Road is a long, prosperous street in the heart of what is apparently called Nappy Valley, and it’s a great place to amble and bimble. I hadn’t been in many years, although I was an occasional visitor in a former life.

I remember eating in this little place called Franco Manca there, once upon a time when there were only a handful of them, before they contracted the disease called private equity. There used to be a splendid tapas restaurant, too, called Lola Rojo, which did an olive oil ice cream I still think about sometimes: if I could have my time over again, I’d have ordered two portions (laugh all you like, but that might make my top 50 of Things I’d Do Differently). But anyway those were simpler times, over ten years ago, and remembering them it’s as if they happened to somebody else.

Returning in 2023, Northcote Road was still as fancy as I remembered. It’s still lined with swish looking cafés, delis and cheesemongers, bakeries, great shops, a branch of Aesop  – always a sign that you’re somewhere spenny – and tons of opticians. There’s even a branch of upmarket wine merchant Philglass and Swiggott (true story: I used to frequent their Richmond branch and I had to have it explained to me that those weren’t in fact their real surnames). 

Northcote Road also has restaurant after restaurant, and is full of those kinds of chains: Rosa’s Thai, Joe And The Juice, Patty & Bun, Ole & Steen, Meatliquor. The ones where simultaneously we’d rather like one in Reading but we know that if we got one, it would be because they’d jumped the shark. Not that you needed to eat in one if you were peckish – one food van sold beautiful-looking pizza, another was flogging porchetta sandwiches which looked so attractive that I almost cursed my foresight in having made a reservation.

But I had made a reservation, and I’d relied on Eater London for a recommendation. It had a list of the best restaurants in Battersea, although they were sparsely spread out and it would have taken you the best part of an hour to walk from one end of their map to the other (some of them, weirdly, also end up in their list of the best restaurants in Clapham, which tells you what a no man’s land it can be). 

There were small plates wine bars and gastropubs, little BYOB Thai joints and a restaurant offering French-Korean fusion, whatever that is. But I was drawn to Osteria Antica Bologna, slap bang on Northcote Road. It had been going for over thirty years, which meant I had probably walked past it countless times a decade ago. And the clincher was this: I love Bologna and I haven’t been there in far too long. So Zoë and I turned up at lunchtime, our tote bag already full of treats for later from the cheesemonger, to see if it could transport me back, in spirit at least, to one of my favourite cities.

It was old school right from the beginning, with a burgundy and orange awning and a big sign at the front saying “DAL 1990”. And stepping inside I was reminded that it can be a fine line between dated and timeless, and sometimes you make it from the former to the latter merely by staying the course. For what it’s worth, I think Osteria Antica Bologna was the right side of the line, with a simple, rustic-looking dining room, a dusky pink banquette running along one side. On the other, tables were separated by a trellis-like partition that no doubt pre-dated the pandemic.

Beyond the archway in front of the bar, out back, was a more modern-looking dining room with a skylight, an extension I imagine, but I was glad they didn’t seat us there. Even the little things, like a circular table at the front with a big bowl of olives and a large bouquet of flowers, felt like something they had done for a very long time. It was a room with a lovely energy, a place harbouring the unspoken promise that you would eat well, and although only a handful of tables were occupied when we arrived at one o’clock, only a couple were empty when we left.

Another sign that the restaurant was resolutely old school came as I drank my – surprisingly bracing – Aperol Spritz and Zoë attacked her negroni. The menu was antipasti, pasta and main courses. If you wanted pizza, you should have headed to the food truck on the other side of the road, or to Franco Manca. But everything sounded marvellous, including the specials which were explained by our personable, enthusiastic waiter. 

I almost tried some of their pasta but, and this was the only real disappointment on the menu, the difference between a starter and main-sized portion of pasta was just two pounds, which said to me that I was effectively choosing between that and a main. But there’s always next time, when the pumpkin and ricotta ravioli with sage will be calling to me – although not necessarily loud enough to drown out the siren song of the wild boar ragu, or the risotto with salsiccia and Barbera. A truly great menu always comes with regret baked in: that’s the nature of these things.

We’d ordered a trio of antipasti to start and if anything they intensified that regret: given just how good these were, what other treasures had we missed on the menu? Arancini were possibly the best I can remember, and simpler than many I’ve had. No thick crust of breadcrumbs here, just a feather-light seasoned shell. No stodge to wade through with a molten core, instead just a neat sphere of rice, cheese and peas retaining a little bite. And to go with it, an arrabiata sauce worthy of the name, just spiky enough. It reminded me of the difference between pretenders, as with my visit last year to Sauce & Flour, and the real deal – unshowy but superb.

Also as good as I can remember were the zucchini fritti. No, scratch that: they were easily the best I’ve had anywhere. So often, including at a couple of Reading restaurants I actually really like, they can be soggy, limp things and you’re left to redeem them with some kind of dip. Here they were shoestring-thin, almost ethereal yet spot-on crispy, the way this dish always promises to be but somehow never is. And they didn’t need any kind of dip because they were so salty and zippy, so beautifully seasoned and cooked with a real lightness of touch. “The menu should tell you to order these with your drink while you make up your mind” said Zoë who was, as usual, entirely correct.

The other small dish we had, bruschetta with ‘nduja, was the least excellent but really, that just means it was still cracking. Two thin slices of toasted bread were loaded with a terrific ‘nduja – not stingily, either – with more depth and earthiness than I’m used to. So often ‘nduja dishes I’ve had are a one-note symphony relying on the acrid heat it can supply; I’ve lost track of the number of restaurants that make lazy use of the stuff. By contrast, this dish just said isn’t our ‘nduja amazing? and, having tasted it, it was impossible to argue. One thing you could potentially quibble, here, was the cost: eight pounds fifty for that. Sounds expensive, but is it 2023-in-London expensive? Your guess is as good as mine.

We grabbed a couple more drinks while we waited for our mains. My gavi, in an endearingly functional wine glass, had a pleasant zing to it and Zoë, sensibly, decided to move to gin and tonic. By this point the restaurant had a real buzz and all the temptations of elsewhere, the porchetta sandwiches and gelato places, had melted into air. All that mattered was the next course, and the course after that.

“This is very promising, isn’t it?” said Zoë. She was right about that too. 

If I had to pick a main course to start my reviewing this year with, it would be hard to choose better than the dish Osteria Antica Bologna served me. A piece of cod with salty, crispy skin and soft, sumptuous flesh, cooked by someone who really understood how to get both those things right at once, perched on a little heap of chickpeas, tomatoes and spinach.

A single forkful was enough for me to know that I was in a happy place. I even turned to Zoë and told the tired joke I reserve for these occasions, I love it when a chickpea’s in my mouth, and she had the decency not to grimace; imagine what sitting opposite me at dinner dozens of times a year must be like. Only the fact that the promised salsa verde, which would have completed the dish perfectly, had been replaced by a smear of something closer to purée slightly blotted the copy book.

The problem is that if I had to pick a main course with which to start my reviewing year, it would be damn near impossible to choose better than the dish the restaurant served to Zoë. The menu called it pork belly with roasted apple, but that prosaic description comes nowhere near capturing what a marvel it was. A gargantuan slab of pork where, like the fish, everything was exactly how it was meant to be. The flesh was tender, the crackling brittle and intensely savoury. Between the two, arguably the best bit, that sticky, moreish layer of subcutaneous fat, rendered to the point where it was gorgeous but not beyond that to the point where it vanished. I was allowed a forkful, and then because of my expression I was allowed another, and another.

“Would you like to try some of my fish?”

“No, you’re all right.”

Just as sometimes you can only pick out one face in a crowd, it was hard to remember, eating that pork, that there were other things on the plate. But the gravy, shot through with mustard which never overpowered, was a terrific foil and I imagine the griddled apple was superb with it too. We’d ordered some chips with our dishes, which they really didn’t need, and those were predictably wonderful – light and salty and far too easy to pick at long after we’d cleared our mains. If they buy them in, they buy very well.

The dessert menu was also compact and leant heavily on the classics, and having seen the well-upholstered man and his Sloaney Alice-banded daughter at the next table make their choices simplified things nicely for me. My tiramisu was maybe the weakest link in the whole meal – not bad, per se, but a little too loose and liquid when I’d have liked it a tad more substantial. The slug of coffee and booze as you got to the bottom, though? That was still a wonderful moment in a meal full of them. And at the end of it I had an Amaro di Capo, as much medicine as booze, served without airs, graces, ice cubes or orange in a tall shot glass.

Zoë – here we go again – picked better. Her pear and chocolate tart was another home run, with a few pieces of baked pear, a pleasingly short pastry base and a very thick layer of chocolate; I thought it was a relatively airy ganache, Zoë thought it was a sponge, we had a heated debate about it and agreed to disagree. “That filling definitely has flour in it” were her last words on the subject, but I still say she’s dead wrong. I also managed to talk her out of ordering a Bailey’s and into trying a Frangelico instead. It was not a sponge: trust me on this. 

I haven’t talked about service but it was another of the things that was great rather perfect. The staff are clearly a well-oiled unit, bright and happy, friendly and brilliant. But one thing they also were, slightly, was too efficient. Our plates were cleared away mere moments after we’d cleared them, to the point where it became a little bit too much (“there’s something OCD about it” Zoë said, bemusedly, just after they’d also cleared her G&T away when she hadn’t quite finished it).

But really, that was a small quibble about a magnificent place to eat. I could easily see how Osteria Antica Bologna had held its ground amid all that gentrification, all those pop-ups and top tier chains. At one point I saw one of the waiters leave the restaurant with some plates of food and take them out into the street to the people manning a flower stall outside: that, I thought, said it all. Our meal for two – three courses, three drinks each and an optional 12.5% service charge – came to just over a hundred and fifty pounds, and I thought it was worth every penny.

I’ve complained in the past about Reach plc and its pisspoor habit of saying a restaurant is “just like eating” in a foreign country. My problem with that is twofold. First, the poor unfortunate journalist in question has probably never been to the country in question. But more importantly, 99 times out of 100 they haven’t been to the restaurant either – why bother, when there’s TripAdvisor? But for once I’m going to do it myself: I’ve been to Osteria Antica Bologna, and I’ve been to osterias in the city from which it takes its name. And if I’d stepped out the front door to find myself looking at an orange portico dappled with sunlight, rather than being a two minute walk from a Farrow & Ball and a branch of JoJo Maman Bebe, I wouldn’t have been entirely surprised.

As I paid up, our meal at an end and so many around us barely beginning theirs, I thought about what it means to have a restaurant for over thirty years. To outlast fads and phases, to have ‘nduja and burrata on your menu before everybody discovers them, to steer your course without embracing small plates or no reservations, to serve pasta simply because it’s what you do rather than because suddenly pasta restaurants are in vogue. I thought about the fact that Osteria Antica Bologna was here before Northcote Road was all fancy and well-to-do, that they had sent thousands of customers away replete and happy. That they’d started doing that before I even finished my A levels.

And I thought that even though this restaurant was nowhere near my home town (and, let’s be honest, most of you will probably never go there) it was still the perfect place to kick off my reviews this year. Because to celebrate this restaurant, on some level, is to celebrate all great restaurants. Some people have a nasty tendency to use “neighbourhood restaurant” as a way of patting a place on the head. It’s okay I suppose, if you live there they seem to say. But a great neighbourhood restaurant, especially one that makes you wish it was your neighbourhood, is a truly special thing. Osteria Antica Bologna is every bit that special. I’ll find an excuse to be back near Clapham Junction: when I do, I intend to order everything.

Osteria Antica Bologna – 8.6
23 Northcote Road, London, SW11 1NG
020 79784771

https://osteria.co.uk

Restaurant review: Shree Krishna Vada Pav

When it comes to food and drink, Reading is an especially interesting place. You may find this hard to believe at times, but it’s true.

I don’t mean all the stuff that’s obvious to you, especially if you’re a regular reader of this blog. I don’t mean our coffee culture, or our street food scene that’s the envy of towns for miles around. I don’t mean our two local breweries with taprooms, or excellent pubs like the Nag’s and the Castle Tap selling fantastic craft beer and cider. I don’t mean the jewels in our restaurant crown – places like Clay’s, the Lyndhurst, Kungfu Kitchen or Vegivores. I’m not even talking about our network of local producers and the independent shops, like Geo Café and the Grumpy Goat, which sell their stuff. You know all that already, although I suspect a lot of people who live here still don’t. 

No, I mean interesting in terms of the world outside our food-loving, indie-supporting echo chamber. Because a lot of businesses have clocked that Reading – with its university, its prosperous populace and its tech employers, just the right distance from London – is the perfect place for them to open another branch of their restaurant chain and make pots of cash. They have us down, mistakenly I like to think, as something of an Everytown, the perfect testbed for their particular flavour of the hospitality experience.

In fact, two very different types of businesses have Reading in their sights. The first, tapping into that affluent, well-educated demographic, are smaller, more targeted chains. They’ve often seen Reading as their first attempts to expand west (Honest, Pho) or east (The Coconut Tree), or just picked it as one of the first stops on a journey to nationwide ubiquity (Itsu). And this still continues, albeit to a lesser extent: we’re getting a Leon and a Wasabi this year, don’t forget.

But the second type is more interested in Reading as Everytown, and often we are the lucky Petri dish they squirt their pipette into before deciding whether to open branches elsewhere. And this is, I’m afraid, often an American thing. It’s no coincidence that Reading got one of the first Five Guys, got a Chick-Fil-A, albeit briefly, got a Taco Bell and a Wingstop and a Wendy’s and has a Popeyes on the way. Such is life: newly added to the Tube map, but somehow equidistant between London and the good ol’ United States. 

These big American chains with plenty of money are aided and abetted in their mission to slightly worsen Reading by our local media – which posted dozens of stories about Wendy’s, mainly because they were too dumb to think critically for even a split second about whether Reading getting the first Wendy’s in the U.K. was actually a Good Thing. But it also points to just how much is going on in Reading, and how interesting the battle will be between all these factions fighting it out for your money. No wonder Jonathan Nunn, the editor of Vittles, called our town a “fascinating anomaly”.

“Why is this the subject of your interminable preamble this week?”, I hear you say. I thought you’d never ask. The reason I talk about all of this is that the subject of this week’s review is that rare thing, a chain choosing to plonk a branch near the centre of town that people can get genuinely excited about. Because Shree Krishna Vada Pav, a small chain selling vegetarian Maharashtrian street food which started out in Hounslow and only has three branches outside the M25, comes here with an excellent reputation.

Eater London, which tirelessly covers everywhere worth eating outside Zone 1, has enthused about SKVP on numerous occasions. They classed it as one of London’s best Indian restaurants, and one of West London’s best value restaurants. And they said it served one of London’s finest sandwiches, on a list rubbing shoulders with greats like Beigel Bake’s salt beef bagel and Quo Vadis’ legendary smoked eel sandwich. Eater London aptly summed up what SKVP do as “carb-on-carb masterpieces”, and commented elsewhere that their dishes (carbs stuffed into a soft bap) had a “curious affinity with snack culture from the north of England and Scotland”. 

So you might not have heard of Shree Krishna Vada Pav, or you might not have known they were coming to Reading, but one way or the other this is a strangely big deal, despite the grand total of zero coverage in Berkshire Live or the Reading Chronicle. But who needs them anyway when you’ve got me, so this week I headed there on a Monday evening with Zoë to try as much of the menu as I could.

It’s at the edge of town, opposite the Back Of Beyond, and once you get past its Day-Glo orange exterior it’s fundamentally a very long thin room with a view of the kitchen and a corridor heading to the back – and presumably the loos – which seems to go on forever. (“I know” said Zoë. “I used to come here when it was Julia’s Meadow and I thought it was like the fucking TARDIS”). A panel down one wall gave a potted history of the chain which opened its first branch in 2010, although the founders go further back than that, having met at college in Mumbai at the turn of the century. I found all that oddly sweet, which is no doubt the desired effect.

Apart from that the interior was best described as functional – basic furniture, a mixture of tables for two and four and cutlery on the table. It looked very much like a fast food restaurant, albeit one with table service. The music was just the right side of overpowering, although I found I liked that.

“I don’t know how unbiased I can be” said Zoë as we took our seats. “Have we ever had a meal for the blog where I’ve been this fucking starving?”

She had a point. We got there around eight o’clock, having not eaten since a light lunch, and irrespective of how tempting the menu might be there was very much a strong urge to order nearly everything. That said, looking at the menu didn’t make that any easier. It was two things: cheap and huge, not necessarily in that order. It was split into sections, each of which contained an embarrassment of riches: a variety of pav and other bap-based dishes, some Indo-Chinese dishes, some chaat, some sandwiches and wraps, a section of “bites to enjoy” and some signature dishes marked as “SKVP recommends”. And the carb on carb struggle is real: if you want an onion bhajiya sandwich, this is the place for you.

It’s possibly an indicator of how you should eat here that the handful of curries are squirreled away in the furthest corner of the menu, and ordering any of them never occurred to me. But also the pricing positively implores you to order lots of things and share them – the most expensive dishes are around six pounds but most are less than that. I took this as encouragement to take an approach much like the numbers game from Countdown: a couple from the top and the rest from anywhere else. We ordered – please don’t judge – eight dishes in total and our bill came to just under thirty-two pounds. That didn’t include any drinks, because SKVP didn’t have any mango lassi and we didn’t especially fancy anything else: there is, unsurprisingly, no alcohol license.

I do have to say that although the set-up says fast food, ours was far from that. We ordered at ten past eight, and it wasn’t until half an hour later that food started coming to our table. That’s not a problem of itself, but it’s worth mentioning because the restaurant ostensibly closes at nine. And weirder still, the customers kept coming: we were by no means the last table seated or the last people to get their food. I’m pretty sure that SKVP has been busy from the day it opened, and on this showing that’s not going to change any time soon. I should also mention at this point that the staff were quite brilliant, although clearly under the cosh. 

We ordered a lot of food – if you go, you don’t need to order anywhere near as much as we did – and it all came to the table over the space of five minutes. Again, I’m not complaining but it was an odd approach to bring nothing for half an hour and then literally every single thing. I would have preferred a steady stream of dishes, but that might just be me. But don’t be fooled into thinking that low prices mean small portions: you’ll get very full very fast if you make the same mistake we did.

Your challenge, if you go, will be narrowing it down. We had to try the vada pav – it’s in the name, after all – and although I liked it I’m not sure I loved it or preferred it to Bhel Puri House’s version. It really is a carb overload: fried potato served in a cheap white floury bap with a variety of chutneys. I think you kind of have to have it, but I don’t know if I’d have it again – the chutneys were excellent, sharpening and and elevating it, but the potato was a little too much stodge and not enough crunch. Zoë had the version with cheese (plastic hamburger cheese, I think) and she absolutely loved it. That might be the Irish in her.

“Can you believe this only costs two pounds?” I said.

“It’s a bit of old veg though, innit?” came the response, between mouthfuls. Did I mention that we were both ravenous?

More successful (and, frankly, slightly insane) was the “aloo bomb”. I’d wanted the paneer bomb – the sandwich, incidentally, lauded by Eater London as one of the capital’s peerless butties – but it was off the menu that night so they subbed it for the aloo bomb. It’s hard to do justice to this but essentially it’s a spiced potato sandwich that has been battered and fried and it’s every bit as nuts as that description makes it sound: Glaswegians, it turns out, aren’t the only people who will batter anything. 

A portion comes in two triangles so you only need one between two but it’s well worth ordering, if only to tick it off. It struck me as a vegetarian cousin of Gurt Wings’ infamous chicken burger in a glazed donut with candied bacon on top: you’d want to try it once to say you’ve had it, but you mightn’t order it again for at least twelve months.  Who am I kidding? When I go back that paneer bomb has my name on it.

Possibly the best dish was that reliable staple, the chilli paneer. Reading has always been spoilt for this by Bhel Puri House, where the tricky decision is whether to have chilli paneer, paneer Manchurian or – as I have on occasion, again, please don’t judge – both of them. SKVP’s version is beautifully pitched between the two – a little hot, sweet and savoury all at once, staying on that highwire without putting a foot wrong. The paneer was just caramelised enough without being crispy or burnt and this was one dish where, even though we were full to bursting, we made it a personal mission to ensure that not a forkful remained.

“You could come here and have a portion of that to yourself and a vada pav and that would be you sorted” said Zoë. “You could come here for lunch when you’re working from home, you lucky bastard.”

I’d be lying if I pretended the idea hadn’t crossed my mind, although they’ve have to take less than half an hour to bring it.

If the other dishes were less successful, it was still just the difference between rather good and very good. I quite liked the onion bhajiya, I really liked the red onion studded throughout them and I adored the little fried green chillies they were festooned with. But although greaseless they were a tad dried out for my liking: what they really needed was a chutney of some kind. And fried momo were more doughy than their Nepalese cousins, and probably didn’t bring enough to the table. But once you’ve had a spiced potato masala in a deep fried sandwich and a samosa, a third carby vehicle for it is probably overkill by anyone’s standards.

The samosas, by the way, were excellent. My benchmark for these is Cake & Cream up on the Wokingham Road (where they’ve recently gone up in price to a still-ludicrous seventy pence). But I reckon SKVP’s match them nicely, with a filling flecked with chilli that starts out gently hot before going on to clear out every tube you have from the neck up. You can have them on your own – you get four for a ridiculous three pounds fifty – but we had them bundled with a really delicious, deeply savoury and soothing chickpea curry which was one of the milder, less aggressively hot dishes of the evening. Five pounds fifty for this lot, if you can believe it.

I don’t know to be impressed or faintly disgusted with myself that we ate so much of what we’d ordered but eventually we admitted defeat, although not before picking away at the last peppers and spring onions from the chilli paneer. We waddled out into the night, and headed to the back room of the Retreat for a bottle of chocolate stout and a post-meal debrief: I wouldn’t say it was the stuff of Shakespeare, as it mostly consisted of us saying “I’m so full” to one another after a suitably pregnant pause, but it was a debrief nonetheless. The pause probably seemed less pregnant than I did.

It probably won’t surprise you, now that we’ve got to the end, to scroll a little bit further down and see the rating. I loved SKVP. I didn’t care that it took half an hour to turn up, I didn’t care that I missed out on that paneer bomb and, perhaps most significantly, I didn’t care in the slightest that I’d had a meat free evening. It gets an unqualified thumbs up from me, and I imagine a lot of you would enjoy it, even if it’s just for a quickish bite to eat at lunchtime, or before the pub (good luck catching it at a quiet time, though). And I suspect that my selections from this menu were probably pretty mainstream and tame: I look forward to trying more of it.

SKVP’s closest equivalent is Bhel Puri House – which I still love, don’t get me wrong – but it strikes me as offering something very different to Reading’s other vegetarian Indian restaurants, Madras Flavours and Crispy Dosa, both of which focus their menus elsewhere. And SKVP also achieves that underrated thing which not enough restaurants succeed in pulling off: it’s fun. Fun from start to finish, fun looking through the menu, fun picking too much stuff, fun eating somewhere unlike the rest of Reading, fun eating a deep fried potato sandwich. One hundred per cent fun. It was even almost fun lying in bed that night, feeling like a python slowly digesting a mongoose it had swallowed whole. Almost.

So maybe Reading’s story isn’t written yet. And that’s an encouraging thing to realise, that with big U.K. chains to the left and bigger U.S. chains to the right we still have the chance to be stuck in the middle with our independent heroes, our restaurants and pubs, breweries and cafés, producers and shops. And in that happy place, I like to think there’s also still room for someone like SKVP – an occasional epic, incongruous, glorious curveball.

Shree Krishna Vada Pav – 8.1
97 Kings Road, Reading, RG1 3DD
07900 345120

https://skvp.co.uk

Restaurant review: Medlar, Chelsea

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 friendships sometimes 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
020 73491900

https://www.medlarrestaurant.co.uk