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Chez Bruce, Wandsworth, London

Chez Bruce


Evening on a midwinter Thursday, nine o’clock, and the myrtle swathe of Wandsworth Common sags beneath the drizzle. Hued in Ramsayan aubergine, Chez Bruce gleams invitingly over the wet, dark grass. Inside, the mirrored dining room is stirring snugly, like a sleeping puppy. The taxi purrs to the open door. Expectant, excited, hungry, we glide up the glistening stone steps, and–

‘We’re not ready for you yet. Could you come back in ten minutes?’

As we’re wondering what to do, they manage to find a table. The room is boxy and hot, the covers packed with claustrophobic eagerness. No matter: we already knew that food is more important than setting here.

I’ve been trying to come here for years, now. But only last month did the restaurant abandon an infuriating bookings policy pinched from Uncle Gordon (whom Marco Pierre White reduced to a blond, blubbing wreck in this kitchen when it was the two-Michelin-starred Harvey’s). You used to have to ring up one month before you wanted to come to Chez Bruce; and it’s two months, now, at Royal Hospital Road. But here, at least, that’s changed, and we bagged a late-ish table with only a couple of weeks’ notice.

Say what you like about Harden’s as a restaurant guide, but its readers have voted this place London’s favourite restaurant every year since 2005. It first received a Michelin star in 1999, the same year as The Fat Duck. Unlike Heston Blumenthal, however, who's beginning to appear with unpromising frequency on Channel 4, Bruce Poole sticks largely to the kitchen.

It shows. As he told Jay Rayner in 2006, ‘All I did was write the kind of menu I thought people would want to eat’. Which is why tonight’s – it changes twice a day – contains a brandade terrine with aïoli potato salad and chorizo; duck confit with red cabbage, braised lentils and roast potato; and, as always, the signature crème brulée.

Everything, in fact, looks good – so much so that I have to ask the manager to recommend something. (After eight years in the job, David O’Connor recently left for The Square.) ‘I wouldn’t have the tartare in someone else’s restaurant,’ he says. ‘But I would here.’ It’s the best I’ve tasted outside France: hand-chopped fillet spiked with the sharp crunch of shallot and a splash of red wine vinegar, some cornichons, a hit of peppery rocket, and harmonised by a soft quenelle of crème fraiche. It also comes with sublimely knobbled ‘chips’ of deep-fried polenta, remarkably crisp and light, with a background shimmer of garlic from the oil they were cooked in. A foie gras and chicken liver parfait for C – maroon and iron-savoured, it turns out to be sealed in a Jurançon jelly, which is pleasing given that we’d already chosen a half-bottle of the same wine to have with the starters. I should mention here that the 450-strong wine list has won awards in its own right, and offers, as they say, something for everyone.

Home-made boudin blanc nestles with tender pork belly alongside creamed potatoes, Savoy cabbage and an apple compôte. It’s a generously cluttered Alsatian plate, with ingredients matrixed by a rich, mustardy, piggy sauce bringing some coherence to the competing flavours. A fillet of cod is sealed by the salt crunch of grilled pancetta, with braised, floppy gem lettuce, a duxelle of wild mushrooms (mainly girolles and porcini) and Jerusalem artichoke purée. The bacon is the footbridge for this dish, linking the slick freshness of the well-cooked fish with the forest earthiness of fungi and tuber.

Understating, the website says, ‘We take the cheese board very seriously at Chez Bruce, and it forms an integral part of the restaurant.’ Neal’s Yard supplies; amongst the half-dozen I choose is one I’ve never had before: a Coolea from Ireland. Apparently, it won Best Modern Irish Cheese at the British Cheese Awards 2007. It’s rather similar to Gouda – surely it’s time, incidentally, that that cheese is awarded PDO status? – and is smooth, bubbly, and milky. A goats’ Pélardon from the Languedoc is just stunning – brittle and nutty, like a limestone cave in a rainwashed wood. There’s also a fig preserve and some home-made quince jelly. Pudding-wise, a marzipany pear and almond tart, with good pastry but unaided by clotted cream which is too rich for it; and a less successful salted pecan ice-cream that unharmoniously meshes sweet and savoury - though it comes with lovely tuiles and madeleines. A slosh of port, a camomile tea and some free crunchy pastries complete this outstanding dinner.

One common criticism of the place does seem valid: that the lively, demi-rustic cooking is slightly – only slightly – at odds with the formal, almost reverential atmosphere. There are no amuses, cloches or Franglais here, but there’s starched linen, a solemn hush, a fine sommelier for a magnificent wine list and, as C said, the crowd is ‘very Hurlingham Club’. Perhaps that’s what it takes to get a Michelin star - although it must be said, Poole doesn’t seem to have sought those plaudits. Yet perhaps the most frequent complaint of Murano – that the generous glow of Hartnett’s Italianate food is stifled by the joyless sterility of its corporate setting – bears, I think, a very faint comparison here. Nonetheless, the food, which remains the rich, beating heart of Chez Bruce, is simply fantastic. I can’t wait to return.

Chez Bruce, 2 Bellevue Road, Wandsworth Common, London SW17
Tel. +44 (0)20 8672 0114

See on the TFYS Map

Three-course dinner, excluding drinks and service costs, £40pp: £50 for four courses to include cheese.

Chez Bruce on Urbanspoon


LSQ2, Reading, Berkshire



LSQ2 stands in a business park outside Reading. I'll let you get over the giddy joy of that opening sentence before going on.

A few tech giants, such as Microsoft, have their UKHQs nearby. LSQ2, a vaguely Nordic, wood and windows affair, is near Lime Square. One bright spark thought that, Lime Square being the location of the restaurant, and adding a little '2' to a number having the effect it does, they could give the place a chic appeal for the nearby maths geeks by calling it L[ime] SQ[uare] '2' (i.e. 'squared'). By some margin, it’s the most pretentious, convoluted name I’ve ever seen for a restaurant. '2' is a redundant repetition of 'SQ', and the name literally reads Lime Square Squared. As a name, LSQ2 also has the unhappy attribute of being both pointlessly complicated (to the nth degree, maybe) and incredibly ineffectual, since it tells you nothing about the values of the place, or of its food.

An ominous start, then. Why Reading? I'm on company training in Berkshire, and it's Christmas party season. From its website, LSQ2 looks a fine choice. It boasts of a not-quite-recent fêting as Reading Restaurant of the Year 2007, 'recommended in the Michelin Guide' no less. Sunny pictures of light, airy spaces predominate. The restaurant is proudly 'adjacent to the new Ecotricity wind turbine'. Charmant!

'The essence of our brasserie is simplicity,' states the web-blurb. Well, let's take a look. One starter is 'green tea smoked salmon' with a salad made with mango and quince, some miso flavouring, and horrible-sounding 'crayfish coulis'. 'Simple', yes, but only in the way that people who talk to themselves are. Elsewhere is 'Vietnamese duck roll' - which sounds like a wrestling move - with hoi sin dressing and something called 'Asian slaw'. Mains include 'roast Norfolk turkey' with 'all the traditional trimmings' and, of all possible ingredients in the world, water chestnuts; while amongst the puddings is a coconut and sticky rice pudding with palm sugar and a 'toffee crust'.

This menu couldn’t be more messed up if it downed a litre of Beefeater while spinning in a centrifuge. Vague approximations of what its website styles 'honest, wholesome and satisfying' cooking – which makes it sound like a Richard Curtis film – appear in a couple of British classics like roast rib of beef (though with cauliflower and horseradish purée) or the 'Norfolk turkey' (presumably factory farmed in Norfolk, and doing little for the chef's professed commitment 'to use local suppliers'). Yet even here, the beef has an onion gravy mixed with soy, and the turkey is inexplicably glazed in maple syrup. Can't they just leave things alone?

Like the restaurant's name, then, the food has been desperately, disparagingly, despairingly mucked about with – a hodgepodge of Asiatic ingredients superimposed onto classic, hearty, aeon-forged British or European dishes. I'm afraid it eats no better than it sounds.

I'm not sure what's Vietnamese about my 'Vietnamese duck roll'. The tepid bird, shredded and stirred into shop-bought hoi sin, has been wrapped in a distinctly unVietnamese tortilla and half-heartedly toasted. Sliced in two, it's assembled to look like a Labrador's splintered thigh bone. It spikes above that 'Asian slaw' - apparently worms in brown gloop. It's the ugliest thing I've been served for a long time, and what makes it worse is the almost pathological fussiness of its conception, the bafflingly muddle-headed desire to elevate a Pret duck wrap, not exactly an inspiring meal to begin with, to brasserie fare. It remains uneaten.

Next is pork belly with leeks and mustard mash, a dish I'd looked forward to because the chef hadn't felt the need to slather it in pulped dragon fruit, nam pla reduction or emulsified coriander. Instead, out of the kitchen rears a grease-sodden, chewy lump of pig meat, with sweet and sour sauce from a budget Chinese takeaway, artificially pallored, ridden with chunks of raw vegetables and as 'honest, wholesome and satisfying' as nail polish remover. Vegetables are undercooked bowls of Brussels sprout, cauliflower (when has anyone ever said to themselves that what they really fancy for supper is some boiled cauliflower?) and a few other vegetative scraps.

Pudding is apple crumble, truly the worst I've ever had - magnificently, extravagantly uncrumbly, instead with a sort of sweet, breaded paste on top, and a sob-worthy apple puree underneath, conceivably from a jar. Some bought-in vanilla ice cream has a mint leaf for a garnish - mint, of course, brings little to apple; although perhaps that last tongue of greenery is an attempt to bring another unwelcome Asiatic intruder to an old British classic.

In the interests of fairness, I should mention that the staff are polite and friendly, the house white is reasonably priced at £12.50 for a passable Australian Chardonnay, and the room or terrace probably would be pleasant enough for a drink on a summer's day. But dinner at LSQ2 was operatically disastrous: a shame when it seemed so promising online. If this is truly the best restaurant around, I pity the poor Redingensians.

LSQ2, The Pavilion, 220 South Oak Way, Lime Square, GreenPark, Reading, Berkshire, RG2
Tel: +44 (0) 118 987 3702

See on the TFYS Map

Christmas dinner for one, excluding drinks and service, costs £29.90pp. Typical à la carte mains range from £13 to £20. Not that you really need to know this - you're not going, are you?

I only had the camera on my phone for this dinner - but trust me, the food wouldn't have looked much better on the point-and-shoot.


Northbank, City of London


As David Brent – we gloss over the fact that this is a man for whom a Ginsters pastie is acceptable nourishment – uniquely puts it, ‘Does a struggling salesman start turning up on a bicycle? No, he turns up in a newer car. Perception, yeah?’ In similar fashion, Jan Moir has written with customary vim and eloquence that, in these straitened times, intelligent restaurateurs sense ‘the best way forward is to give customers more, not less’. Peter Woods, head chef at Northbank, and Christian Butler, its owner, evidently do not watch The Office or read the outstanding reviews at Are You Ready to Order? Which is a shame. If they did, they might not have instructed their staff to ‘hard sell’ quite so... well, quite so hard.

A and I have asked for a glass of champagne from the bar menu, a little printed thing that awaited us at table. There’s Moët at £9.50. Is that the only champagne by the glass?

‘’Fraid so,’ comes the meek reply.

Yet when we see the wine list proper, it turns out they have one glass at £7.00. How one bristles!

With alarming exactitude, they price the three-course lunch at £17.70. I’ve eaten it once before, about a year ago, and I also had the à la carte in summertime. Twice, I had a pretty good meal. But when we tell the waitress we’ve come for the set menu, she actually says:

‘Really? But the veal on the à la carte is so good.’

Perhaps it is, at eighteen pounds plus twelve-and-a-half. But such cutesy pushiness serves only to irritate. What is the point of offering a cheapie lunch deal, which enables City workers to snaffle down three speedy plates and be back in the office in around an hour, if you see it purely as a springboard from which to flog dishes costing more than all its courses put together?

This avarice is relentless at Northbank. We’re silkily informed that our thoroughly decent 500ml carafe of Australian red, an already steepish £22, isn’t as good as another priced at £27. Even after pudding and port and coffee they aren’t finished: the girl presses us to order something called a chocolate martini, which sounds perfectly revolting.

It all leaves a rather sour taste, which is a shame when the food itself is pretty good. There are two types of bread, rosemary and sourdough. They’re perhaps bought-in, but crustily fresh nonetheless. A soup of ham hock has a careful eye towards frugality but remains hearty, soul-warming stuff, bulked out with buds of lentils and chunks of parsnip afloat in fine, savoury consommé. A vegetable cake, while sounding like the worst Seventies sop to veganism, is actually very good: fried like a fishcake, with a perfectly citric hollandaise and a clean poached egg. Then a daube of beef cheek for the pair of us: rich winter fare perfect for these dreech days, with sweet diced carrot and glazed onions, in a sauce rendered almost black by long slow-cooking. The oven was a bit too hot, actually, and some of the beef is slightly burnt - in its way, though, this only adds to the pleasant rusticity of the dish. We also have a small side of well-cooked kale, priced at a maxed-out £3.50, and a sloppy puddle of puréed potato, sunk to the plate like an exhausted pig. For pudding, we share a dryish and wholly unseasonal fig tart, with some excellent praline ice cream.

All good stuff. And I haven’t mentioned the view, which is perhaps Northbank’s USP. On this crisp December day, the river looks resplendent, with the ochre funnel of the Tate Modern rearing above, and the wobbly bridge aglint nearby. Earth has not anything, etc. The restaurant is even better in warmer seasons, when they open the raised terrace, and your view won’t be interrupted, as ours was, by a Sauternes-swilling oaf demanding the blinds be drawn. The main room could seem cramped, but it’s been kitted out with an intelligence that provides the illusion of space: raised booths, masses of light, sensible partitioning. The trompe l’oeil wallpaper by Timorous Beasties cleverly melds vintage and modern design: the Gherkin and specific Soho delights wittily disguised in an old-fashioned greenish pattern.

But none of this changes how singularly off-putting it is to feel your every move is being monitored for its attendant margin. As a London food blogger, I feel it my reluctant duty to stave off the worst of the recession by eating out as often as I manage, or as I dare. Mean little restaurants like Northbank don’t make this any easier. Should the collective purse-strings fail to loosen, Butler and Woods will need to realise that customers only return when they’re made to feel like welcome guests, not as items on a balance sheet. A touch of generosity would go a long way. It is Christmas, after all.

Northbank, Millennium Bridge, One Paul’s Walk, London EC4V
Tel. +44 (0)20 7329 9299

See on the TFYS Map

Lunch for two, excluding drinks and service, costs £42.40; £91.97 all-in with two glasses of champagne, a carafe of red and a glass of port.


Two glasses Moët & Chandon, £9.50
500ml carafe Margaret River, W. Australia, 2006, £26

Northbank on Urbanspoon


Sweetings, City of London


The word ‘sweeting’ means ‘moneyer’. In today’s deflated City, the name seems a trifle optimistic. But when I arrive at midday and ask for a table for three, Nigel the manager is so confident they’ll be full for lunch, he refuses to seat me until the other two turn up. Actually, this silliness is standard practice at Sweetings, like its ‘quaint’ no-bookings rule, its ‘Monday to Friday, lunch only’ policy, and the fact that credit cards were anathema here well into the new millennium. I’m left standing at the old oak bar, which at least gives me a chance to remark on the décor.

Under the glare of striplights, the room is a sallow beige. Spy caricatures of gaunt Victorian men peer down. A cricket bat is on the wall, bearing the faded autographs of men who long ago qualified for free bus passes. A plastic Christmas wreath, c. 1972, sags dustily. Although a couple of normal tables cluster in the back, most customers eat from one side of long desks, and from behind this, a lady distributes drinks, ketchup and a portion of surliness.

Slate-haired pinstripes start to fill the room, with noses the colour of red cabbage. They smell faintly of Old Spice and port. They’ve come to this ‘institution’ because, as the Earl of Bradford points out in an article noteworthy more for the assumptions it makes than for its value as a restaurant recommendation, ‘many customers first went to dine there before they even started at their chosen public school’. The great R. W. Apple hymned its praises in a New York Times feature aimed at American tourists, and Fergus Henderson himself has declared it to be his favourite restaurant.

Good God, Fergus – why? Admittedly, it’s a piece of history: the Stock Exchange was established in Sweetings Alley in 1773, and the restaurant opened in 1889. Seafood is its sensible speciality: apart from the odd stew, fish rarely needs that long on the stove. Yet this attention to speed rather than detail characterises the Sweetings experience. As well as the refusal to accept reservations or to let customers sit down until the full party has arrived, the restaurant won’t serve coffee. Perhaps this is to be expected somewhere that only opens for weekday lunch, but since that itself is an idiosyncratic quirk, I’m less inclined to think so.

I’m staring in wonder as a woman slops out mayonnaise from a cash-and-carry tub, when T and R arrive. Nigel commands us to sit at the corner of one the long desks. Thin, floppy brown bread has been waiting for an indeterminate time, pre-buttered (or pre-margarined?) so as not to go stale. We order quickly. Potted prawns look like an ice hockey puck, a granite layer of near-frozen butter clamping twelve crustaceans the size of fingernail clippings. R’s bisque is likely based out of a tin, and whatever ingredients were added to it, they’ve been blitzed to a tepid fishy mush.

Smoked haddock with poached eggs is just the sort of old English fare I love: robust, gutsy, unadorned. But these eggs weren’t properly drained, so the serving lady has to take a sheaf of kitchen paper and wipe away the water splashing around the plate. Yeech. Creamed spinach is old, cold and dry, though chips are decent enough. A well-browned fish pie is reminiscent of R’s soup: hugger-mugger scraps and leftovers, earlier blended as bisque, now potato-topped as pie. ‘Edible, with ketchup,’ is T’s withering verdict. Grilled salmon for R is an iridescent pink, suggesting it was farmed.

One virtually indistinguishable pudding each: syrup sponge, bread and butter pudding, and spotted dick. Each comes smothered in a custard I truly haven’t encountered since my salad days in a cold Scottish dining hall: custard the colour of ripe pus, opaquely skinned, unperfumed, tasting thinly of egg derivative, sugar and preservatives. The ‘dick’ is a claggy slab of flour and fat, its raisin ‘spots’ shrivelled nuggets of tastelessness. T seems content with what he terms a ‘stodgy’ bread and butter effort; R finishes his sponge to the crumb and, garrulous as ever, pronounces it ‘good’.

The bill, with a couple of glasses of house wine and a jug of tap water, tops £150.

Nostalgia can be a good thing. As Rowley Leigh has said, ‘what is English cooking if not seasonal local ingredients, simply prepared?’ Such is the mantra of St. John, and of the slew of restaurants it spawned. Such, indeed, is now the mantra of J. Sheekey, another old-timer fish restaurant, and to Sweetings what fresh crème anglaise is to a sachet of Birds Eye stirred into boiling water. Sweetings, for all its ambling down Amnesia Lane, is all too reminiscent of the reasons British restaurants developed such a dire reputation in the first place: overpriced, mediocre food served by schoolmarmish, uncaring staff. Its eccentricities might be faintly endearing, but I’m willing to bet that a new generation of London restaurant-goers, reared in a post-Jamie Oliver world, will fail to be satisfied by its unironic school food. Sweetings serves only to point out how far the London restaurant scene has come. For the sake of tradition, you wouldn’t want to see it die. But its ‘institution’ status doesn’t rescue its disappointingly institutional food.

Sweetings, 39 Queen Victoria Street, London EC4N
Tel. +44 (0)844 567 2326
See on the TFYS Map

Lunch for three, including drinks but excluding service – cash tips preferred, naturally - costs £156.75

Sweetings on Urbanspoon


Sukho, Fulham, London


According to an obscure government department tasked with monitoring this sort of thing, sales of Thai food are up 36% since this time last year. This is hardly surprising given the archipelago’s popularity as a British tourist destination – likely to plummet after that imbroglio at the airport – and a domestic palate well versed in spicy food. Like pretty much every other Brit, then, I have a soft spot for Thai cooking. At my first dinner party, aged 14 or so, I served Nigel Slater’s delicious Thai green chicken curry from Real Food as a main course (a dish sandwiched, naturally, by insalata caprese and banoffee pie). I also spent a month in the region with C of Jade Garden and The Capital back in 2004, where we did this cookery course in Chiang Mai which I heartily commend to you, should you ever be visiting.

R and I – reviews here seem to begin with these initials more and more – are kicking around Fulham having seen the very much 3/5 Quantum of Solace at the Broadway. A search on Time Out throws up Sukho, an ‘intimate, stylish and peaceful’ Thai local. It’s not far, but the eve is bitter chill, so we’ll grab a cab. A little way down the Fulham Road, please.

‘Righto, guv.’

I can see the pudgy form of the Bibendum Michelin man when I realise we’re going the wrong way. So we chug backwards down the same street and eventually hit the restaurant at half-eight, 20 quid down. They’re full. We sit for half an hour in the Sloaney Pony, then in we go.

The peerless scent of lemongrass has seeped into the air here, as clean and invigorating as a massage. It’s lifted further by hints of lime and tamarind, fresh garlic and a whiffy tinge of nam pla. It’s the best-smelling restaurant I’ve been to for ages. The room is done up nicely, with some Paul Smith-y coloured stripes on the walls, sensible lighting, and a mixture of leathery banquettes and wooden chairs. A brass gong sits temptingly by the door, but I resist giving it a bosh. They’ve packed the tiny tables together with depressing eagerness, and the place is full. Two inches separate me from the pearls of my neighbour, who’s braying with matronly self-importance that the restaurant is ‘ebsolutely mahvellous’ and ‘such a find’. Her companions nod with resigned acquiescence. I hope she’s right.

Three starters come promptly, and look lovely. Little flowers decorate the plates; are these inedible prettifyers re-used between customers? Por pia sod are fresh spring rolls stuffed with tofu, herbs, fried egg, crab and Thai sausage, with a thick, sour sauce of tamarind on the side. A clear case where less would have been more: the sausage, especially, should be dispensed with. Bismarck once quipped that people who would retain respect for laws and sausages should avoid witnessing the production of either. Here, you don’t have to witness it: the sausagemeat powerfully evokes the scrapings from the Bangkok abattoir floor. Ploy sam see are better: three mixed dumplings, liberally pumped by the chemical food dyes beloved throughout Asia. There’s one of chicken, one of fish, and, er, one of chicken and prawn. ‘Delicious,’ R says, but I think that’s overdoing it – there’s a placental slipperiness to their exterior and a rubberiness to their filling. The last starter is the best by a considerable margin: tod man pla-goong, two fishcakes with the classic sauce of chilli and cucumber, given extra note here by crushed peanuts. As the waitress removes the plates, the proximity of the tables means she can’t turn round, so she sort of moonwalks back to the kitchen as if we were royalty. It’s a strange sensation.

Main courses see an improvement: a five-spiced duck confit, ped tok takrai, with lemongrass, tamarind and roasted orange, is surprisingly tender. This is a good display of technique, with the slightly burnt orange – a fine thing, that – bringing a shimmer of caramel. Poo sa moon prai are flawless, and the dish of the evening. Soft shell crabs deep fried and served with lemongrass, lime leaves, fresh green peppercorns and coriander. There’s no trace of greasiness, and the crabs incorporate that delightful mingling of sea-fresh flecked white meat and creamy, gooey dark. This is the best incarnation of the crustaceans I’ve had in ages, better than the ones I had at the two-Michelin-starred Capital recently. Last are king prawns in a red curry sauce with more lime leaves and fresh chilli – chu chi goong. It’s good, but for £13.95, I’d dared to hope for more than four prawns. This is all enjoyed with some jasmine rice and a side dish of stir-fried asparagus (God knows where from, at this time of year) and purple-sprouting broccoli.

Puddings in Asian restaurants are often execrable, the continent not sharing the northern European urge for sugar and stodge. Still, we order kao neow mamuang – mango with sticky rice – and a crépe [sic] pon la mai, a thin pancake with orange compôte and a scoop of vanilla. The mango mistakenly emerges as – Jesus Christ – banana fritters. For the sake of this review, I sneakily taste one before sending them back. They’re pleasantly hot, fresh out the fryer, and the banana was clearly in decent nick before it was massacred for this dish, but overall they’re as horrible as you’d expect. The crèpe is marginally better.

Not a bad place, Sukho. A considerable step-up from a bog-standard Thai – which has emerged, in recent years, almost with the staid regularity of a bog-standard tandoori. The staff are an attentive, friendly bunch. When the bill appears, it seems rather a lot, though, considering we only drank a couple of beers apiece. A good neighbourhood restaurant, then, perhaps with certain ideas above its station.

Sukho, 855 Fulham Road, London SW6
Tel. +44 (0)20 7371 3600
See on the TFYS Map

Dinner for two, excluding drinks and service, costs £75.15; £101.70 all-in with four Singha beers and twelve-and-a-half.

Sukho Thai Cuisine on Urbanspoon


Galvin Bistrot de Luxe, Marylebone, London

Galvin Bistrot de Luxe

A return to creature comforts after what seems an aeon in the Maghreb, and where better than GBDL for this creature to be comforted? I first visited three years ago, just after Chris and Jeff Galvin opened the place. It’s now a counterpoint to the fancier, more vertiginous affair the brothers run at the neo-Soviet Hilton on Park Lane. The ethos at the Bistrot is simpler food done well, without pretence or cheffy flummery - the Camembert foams and seaweed ice creams and pomegranate mists. Absent too are silver cloches, incessant toppings up, and ludicrous Franglais (you know where you are, Ms Darroze, with your ‘boeuf Angus Aberdeen de Chez Allens of Mayfair’). No, this place, while undoubtedly De Luxe, remains unquestionably a bistro, specifically a Noughties bistro moderne, and the winner of Best French Restaurant at this year’s London Restaurant Awards.

Pace Giles Coren, it seems right to point out that this place is priced very fairly. In some ways, a recession is almost a good thing for the restaurant industry, raising as it does the customers’ awareness of avarice and VFM. Pennies pinched prompt a flight to classics and quality; at the top end, this should include, for example, Le Gavroche, a trailblazing stalwart of the London scene for four decades; while at the lower end comes, it is hoped, a rediscovery of neighbourhood restaurants overlooked in the era of the £150-a-head degustation, drinks and twelve-and-a-half non inclus. The Bistrot deserves to buck the downturn.

Monday night. The house manager, Jean Mounaix, welcomes us, sidling us along to a crisp linened table. R’s apéritif maison is a weird muck of Prosecco, Kirsch, apple juice and lemon peel, the Kirsch in particular acting like a swig of tepid gin. At least there’s a pearly glass of Galvin Grande Resérve Brut as well, which is far better. It’s a stunning wine list, in all honesty, with a dozen available by the carafe, a great deal under £25, and a handful into triple figures for the city’s dwindling financiers.

I could enjoy anything on this menu. Starters comprise everything from smoked salmon to a mosaic of chicken with sweetbreads and foie gras, via a salad of endive with Roquefort and walnuts, steak tartare, and a mousseline of lemon sole with lobster. Unless you double up to a dozen escargots Bourguinonne or drop some sizzling hot chorizo onto your Maldon oysters, it’s all under a tenner. Main courses are priced with equal competitiveness: the most expensive item is an entrecôte of veal with cèp sauce at £38 for two, while everything else hovers around the mid-teens. A prix fixe lunch, which has increased by only 50p in three years and which now stands at £15.50, is a happy marriage of frugality and flavour: ham hock terrine with quince chutney; boudin noir with mash and caramelised apples; and rice pudding with raspberries. Would that every restaurant could get it this right.

I start with a special: terrine of foie gras, with clean layers of sliced baby leeks. It comes with some crushed hazelnuts and a small, lightly dressed salad, a shimmering puddle of olive oil at the side. At this time of year, the baby leeks are a fine addition, and they’re well cooked – steamed, I reckon – retaining freshness and bite. The foie gras isn’t too heavy, despite the generous portion; and it’s refreshing to enjoy the delicacy without fruit, for a change. R’s terrine of chicken, sweetbreads and more foie gras is better still, its harmonious ingredients assembled with thought and skill.

Main courses work equally well: a braised pig’s trotter, including its hock, appears naked and unabashed with a smooth plop of mash. The savoury mahogany sauce, a long eke of veal bones, brings everything together and makes the dish sing. My Icelandic – and thus, presumably, sustainable – cod arrives with shelled mussels, a little potage of leeks and a light curry sauce. That spicing is an indispensable fluffer for the dish: the fish too has been steamed, and although well cooked, carries little punch of its own. I’m not saying it has to be turbot every time, and I’m aware that, in W1, I shouldn’t really balk at £15.50 for a sizeable piece of wild fish in pleasant surroundings. But this is merely ordinary, and the cause of the dropped star in this review.

I’m full, really, but the manager presses me into a pudding: a splendidly chewy tarte tatin of apple, with jammy, demi-caramelised pastry; and a tarte au citron for R – one of the best I’ve tasted in ages: melding concentrated lemon with an exquisite milky richness, over superbly short pastry.

S and I return five days later for that stand-out lunch deal. We kick off with tartare of raw mackerel with black olive tapenade and rounds of English cucumber – an excellent cold starter for winter; and then a rich wild mushroom vélouté – an excellent warm one. Then salmon and cockle risotto, and braised ham hock with choucroute. A crèpe Suzette apiece and we tumble out into the November drizzle.

This bistrot is a triumphant credit to the judges of the London Restaurant Awards. I admire its decency, its commitment to delicious, unrarefied French cooking, and its frank, modest concern for things like provenance and seasonality. I like the friendliness of its staff and the fairness of its prices. Most of all, I love the fact that it espouses all this from within London, a city where greedy-guts are as common in the offices of restaurants as at the tables. It is simply a delight.

Galvin Bistrot de Luxe, 66 Baker Street, London W1U
Tel. +44 (0)20 7935 4007

Three-course dinner for two, excluding drinks and service, costs £65; £66.67 a head all-in.

Three-course lunch offer for two, excluding drinks and service, costs £31.


Aperitif Maison (£7.75)
Glass of Galvin Grande Resérve Brut (£9.50)
Bottle 2007 Le Sabounet, Roger Sabon, Rhone (£18.00)
Glass of 2006 Coteaux Layon Saint-Lambert, Loire (£6.50)

Galvin Bistrot de Luxe on Urbanspoon


Mediterraneo, Notting Hill, London



The TFYS hunt for a benchmark local Italian continues. I recently went to Manzo in South Ken:

Swordfish carpaccio with rocket salad – a lovely, pale, salty fish I don’t order enough, largely due to reading tales of three-foot parasitic worms in Kitchen Confidential. Then home-made, lukewarm fettucine with fresh Alba white truffle (take note, dal Pescatore) – a heavenly dish, although the pasta was clumpy and tepid because of the time taken to de-shell P’s salt cod. Decent Soave. Four stars.

And Napule at Fulham Broadway:

A dinky place, essentially two corridors stacked on top of each other, part of the MadeInItaly franchise. You order pizzas cooked in a little kiln by the quarter metre; hit and miss ingredients and dough that seems flabby for a wood-fired oven. Unremarkable spaghetti à la vongole. Soggy tiramisù. Bottle of Italian sweet white after nondescript house red – Valpolicella, I think. Two stars.

Not to mention La Famiglia and the wee Sardinian place in the City, Terranostra.

Now here’s three sister restaurants – triplets? – clustered on the same street in Notting Hill. They seem much of a muchness, although the main one, Osteria Basilico, is full when I ring up to book, as is the junior version, Essenza. It seems we’re stuck with the barrel-scrapingly named sister, Mediterraneo, which can fit us in at half-eight. We’re a bit late – ten minutes or so. ‘Come in!’ says a welcoming, delighted voice, above outstretched hands. ‘Wait at the bar!’

I see.

An accurate description, at least. No seats. No room for seats. Just a bar, with approximately three bottles of wine behind it, in front of which they compel us to wait, so that we’re blocking a passageway the width of a papardelle strand. Waiters hurtle past with trays of plates and glasses, constantly banging into us. ‘Sorry.’ Sorry. ‘Sorry.’ Sorry. It’s almost operatic. One of my buttocks is hovering above someone’s minestrone. And despite the fact we’re at a bar, no-one seems inclined to offer us any booze.

At last the table’s ready, and here’s a bottle of dishwater Trebbiano. Two types of warm, excellent bread appear, with some nice (if cloudy) EVOO and typically acrid balsamic vinegar. A rosemary focaccia, glistening with salt crystals, and a soft sourdough which R holds to her ear, breaking it to hear the homely crackle of crust. It all only costs a quid.

The menu is an uninteresting mix of pasta-pesce-carni staples. R asks which region of Italy the restaurant specialises in. ‘All of them.’ Right. Still, a glory shines from the specials. Pumpkin ravioli with sage: one of my favourite dishes (Rick Stein’s version here is a stand-out dinner party recipe). An equally classic scaloppine Milanese would follow nicely. Could I just have a half-portion of the ravioli, since I only want it as a starter?


Oh. How come?

‘We can’t do that.’

Couldn’t you just prepare a slightly smaller portion?


Here comes the manager.

‘Oh, no, no, no. We can’t be doing that.’

But you can, surely. You’re just choosing not to.

‘OK then. I refuse to do it.’

Right then! I take comfort from the fact I’ll be reviewing this. Better find out his name.

‘Are you the police? You wanna see my ID?’

No, Flavio, I don’t want to see your ID. But then he unexpectedly relents, and a half-portion turns up. The pasta is well-cooked, the butter sauce is rich with a dopey kick of sage, but that filling… There’s a blankness there, an emptiness, an underpowered, underwhelming sense of marks missed. The ravioli have the claggy sweetness of marzipan. They’re not very good.

The scaloppine looks like a flattened scrap of cardboard, and presumably tastes like one. It’s as if the kitchen has breadcrumbed breadcrumbs: a dry, meatless crunch of grease. It comes with a wholly inadequate lemon quarter and a wretched salad of wet, shredded iceberg. R has penne with cuttlefish in arrabiata sauce: marginally better, with a decent whack of Scovilles and a generous, tender portion of cephalopod. But again, it’s all underseasoned, demonstrative of a slapdash approach, a carelessness, a reluctance to taste or test, a slack disregard for the customer.

I thought the nonsense with the half-portion earlier was bad enough. But a modicum of prima donna behaviour is more or less tolerated in chefs where cooking compensates for personality: Ramsay or Pierre White being obvious, screeching examples. The tragic mess of food at Mediterraneo in no way justifies the kitchen’s evident contempt for its customers. R and I eat barely a quarter of our main courses, but there’s no word from Flavio to acknowledge this as he removes the plates. Instead, simply:


Not effing likely, as Ramsay would almost say. One to shun.

Mediterraneo, 37 Kensington Park Rd, London W11
Tel. +44 (020) 7792 3131

Dinner for two, including drinks and service, costs £77.

Mediterraneo on Urbanspoon


Smythson's Restaurant List

The 2009 Smythson pocket diary, which has been out a week or so, includes a list of 50 London restaurants. A little glimpse, through Samantha Cameron's eyes, of places to eat - or perhaps to be seen to eat. Here it is, quoted in full:

Boxwood Cafe
Cafe, The, at Sotheby's [yup, that's how they list it]
Caviar House
Cheyne Walk Brasserie and Salon
Connaught, The
Fifth Floor, Harvey Nichols
Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's
Gordon Ramsay
Green's Restaurant
Inn The Park
Ivy, The
L'Atelier de Joel Robucnon [sic]
Le Caprice
Le Gavroche
Le Pont de La Tour
Les Trois Garçons
Mr Chow
Neal Street Restaurant
Nobu Berkeley
Paternoster Chop House
Poissonerie de l'Avenue
Red Fort, The
River Cafe
St. John
Savoy Grill
J. Sheekey
Square, The
Tom Aikens
Wolseley, The

I know, I know: Smythson don't claim to produce restaurant guides - despite issuing this rather beautiful thing. But even allowing for the inevitable W1 and SW1 bias (31/50, up to 37 if you include SW3), it's still a baffling list.

What's going on here? There are plenty of schleb-spotting places - J. Sheekey, Hakkasan, and of course The Ivy. But no Sketch? It's also disappointing not to see more recent high-profile openings, like L'Ambassade de l'Ile, or Murano, or L'Anima. Daphne's hasn't been a destination for twenty years - but somehow Richard Caring persuaded them to shoehorn it in there. I've heard some very negative things about The Cheyne Walk Brasserie and Salon, although I confess I haven't been. The Caviar House is just another midmarket chain these days, in an airport lounge near you. Fifth Floor at Harvey Nicks once served me raw pork, and I've rarely been more ill. Where's Locanda Locatelli? Pied à Terre? Do we really need both Nobus? And what the hell is the Paternoster Chop House doing there?


Le Restaurant du Port, El Jadida, Morocco

Le Restaurant du Port

In Tangier, drenched by the unrelenting downpour, we dodged our way through hustlers before taking the winding road to Chefchaouen. We trudged round that blue hilltop village beneath more November rain, then returned, wretched and frozen, to an unheated, boxy little room, where we lay shivering under dirty blankets until it was time for dinner. (I had a decent enough tagine made with tomatoes and balls of lamb, with an egg cracked in its centre.) The sun broke out on day four, though, and after we’ve visited Fès, Meknes, Rabat and Casablanca, it’s blasting down today. A six-hour, rattly bus journey throbs ominously before us, so a nice spot of Sunday lunch is called for.
We can hear the Atlantic crashing against the rocks beyond, but the little port beneath us is as innocent and wobbly as blackcurrant jelly. Orson Welles filmed much of Othello here, among crumbling, storm-beaten ramparts built by the Portuguese five centuries ago. The place is full, and with a stab of homesickness, G and I set familiar eyes on a lively, clattering bar, which even has a couple of women at it. It’s a textbook seaside restaurant, really, with décor that would look kitsch back home; but here, the old rubber rings and ropes strewn across the wood panelling have a rustic homeliness.

Could we see the wine list?

‘We have red, white or rosé.’

G’s kind of wine list! Chilled rosé it is, the ubiquitous Cuvée du President, and when it arrives, glistening with condensation, along with some crusty baguettes, we could almost be on the Côte d’Az. The menu is exclusively fish, except for a solitary and somewhat dull concession to terrestrial carnivorism – steak au poivre. There’s lobster à l’Americain, and tuna steak, and marlin. Why not a classic, then? Sole meunière comes in eight minutes flat, firm flesh pulling gently away from sticky, gelatinous bone, the breadcrumbs bringing crunch and a pleasant scabrousness. With it are carrot slices gently glazed with butter and mint, some lukewarm chunks of potato and a large bunch of parsley. But after the endless bowls of urine-hued couscous with brownish veg chunks, this makes for a magnificently refreshing change. G’s fish are gobbling on their tails like a Celtic pattern, and are equally good, fresh as spring. To think they were slapping around on the deck a few hours earlier! Another bottle materialises; perhaps even a third. The reader knows I’m preaching to the converted, but is there anything in the world, really anything, more delightful than lunch with friends in the sunshine?

Bill please. Count-count-count. Eek. Not enough cash. G draws the short straw, and beetles out into the sunlight to the nearest machine (they don’t take cards here, like much of Morocco). He leaves me with, oh woe, the rest of the third bottle. When he returns, bristling with notes, the bus’s klaxon, far off, seems to rise above the muezzin’s wail.

Restaurant du Port, Port du Jadida, El Jadida
Tel. +212 (0)23 342 579
See on the TFYS Google Map

Lunch for two, excluding drinks and service, costs 190 dirhams (approx. £15).


A note on tipping

The government’s proposals on restaurant tipping, announced today, are long overdue. That they appear at a time when the industry is facing both haemorrhaging customer demand and rising costs in raw foodstuffs is of no importance. For years, certain restaurants – including favoured chains like Strada – have brought wages for front-of-house staff to statutory minimum levels only by hijacking the tips; a form of candlelit robbery. A ‘gratuity,’ that is, given freely, was once a means of expressing appreciation and acknowledging good service. It was never supposed to fund a waiter’s basic subsistence. In its debased modern form, the tip functions as an effective cover charge, with an ‘optional’ twelve-and-a-half per cent tacked on to everything from a bowl of olives to a magnum of Dom. It thereby does nothing to incentivise better service. The English, with a cowardly reluctance to complain to restaurateurs, swallowed this ‘table tax’ (itself a VAT dodge) like a teaspoon of arsenic-laced Petits Filous. In America, where service is typically far better, tips are wholly discretionary, with good performances well rewarded. It’s time we followed that example.


Stylia, Marrakesh, Morocco



Until quite recently, the restaurant was an alien concept in Morocco. In a poor country, where family is all, it seemed a distinctly odd idea to eat food cooked by someone other than a female relative, and then to pay for it. The French, as brief colonial overlords, barely changed this, despite cementing what might now be called a ‘café culture’ and a taste for flabby croissants. As a result, most restaurants in Morocco are aimed squarely at tourists, and there is no good restaurant aimed squarely at tourists anywhere in the world.

G and I have been pottering round the country for a little over two weeks, and have run the full, briefish gamut of Moroccan dishes. The best things we’ve consistently enjoyed have been roadside barbecued brochettes of minced lamb, flecked with oregano and then stuffed, perhaps with onion and tomato, into the chewy oval breads you find throughout the country. The bulk of restaurant meals have inevitably comprised couscous, or tagines of lamb or chicken, and have swung from mediocre to downright awful. Couscous, in particular, has been consistently dire: clumpy semolina under overcooked wodges of carrot, potato, and big-seeded courgettes. The accompanying liquor is better – a chicken reduction flavoured, more often than not, with cumin and harissa. As for the tagines, well… decent enough though they were at first, there’s only so much you can do with them. And only so many of them you can eat. So it’s with something approaching exhaustion that we arrive at Stylia.

Curious name, for one thing: neither Arabic nor French. A hint that this place is even more touristy than most is bolstered by live oud music – which (like a lot of music, come to that) has its roots in the slave trade: in this case, the Senegalese bought and sold in Moroccan markets as late as 1912. It’s about twenty to eight in the evening, and the door is shut fast. The chap who showed us the way through the labyrinthine medina scuttles off, and we’re literally alone in a dark alley. We press a button that might conceivably be a bell. Four minutes later, someone appears, telling us that they don’t open till eight. OK. Can we make a booking for eight, then?

‘One moment.’ Off he goes. A couple of minutes.

‘Come in.’

It’s a big plastered room in a fifteenth century mansion, with glass chandeliers from Murano – naturally – and a water feature sloshing away in the centre. Rose petals are scattered everywhere: hall, corridor, floor, like a bombed florist’s. A couple of bottles of the country’s best beer, Casablanca, followed by a bottle of the localish Ksar, and it begins.

In the deathless words of Lonely Planet (which, it bears emphasis, is no Guide Michelin as far as restaurants go), ‘to many people, a discussion of Moroccan cuisine begins and ends with pastilla’. It certainly ends this one. Pastilla is possibly the least pleasant national dish I’ve ever eaten – and this one isn’t my first in Morocco. Here, it’s made with shredded pigeon (an alternative to the usual chicken) and, as standard, it’s layered in a flaky pastry with ground almonds and cumin. This concoction is then liberally sugared and dusted with, of all things, cinnamon. The pastry has a decent crackle, but the ratio of bone to meat is approximately 5:3 and, like all poultry bones, these are shardy and multi-shaped and niggling. Food through which the tongue must sift does not an enjoyable dish make. Apparently, pastilla is principally ‘reserved for special occasions, such as weddings’. That may well be true – although at the Berber wedding G and I were lucky enough to be invited to a few days ago, we had a fabulous dish of lamb baked with prunes, accompanied by noodles with shredded coconut and washed down with, um, Fanta. Perhaps pastilla, like the roast turkeys of Christmas or Thanksgiving, is restricted to rare occasions because, in all honesty, it isn’t that good to eat.

Next, and far better, is a tagine of lamb: a thick hunk of tender shoulder in stolid, cuminy sauce, a chunk of preserved lemon adding salt and the faintest citrus whiff. The meat is as soft as a baby’s thigh, though there’s too much for me. The waiter clears the plates by the table with an ear-splitting scrape.
Couscous arrives, and the grains are fluffy and distinct, there are sultanas and an onion marmalade and the kitchen has barely overcooked the carrot, potato and courgette. In fact, this is the best couscous we’ve had all trip; it’s just a shame that it should have come when our tolerance for the stuff has long reached stodgy saturation point. Unbelievably, pudding is meant to be another pastilla – au lait this time, which we had at La Maison Bleue in Fès.
Some orange à la cannelle is a safer bet: ripe oranges sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. Intrinsically Moroccan and a light, uninspiring end to dinner prepared by a kitchen on autopilot.

Stylia, 34 Rue Ksour, Marrakesh
el. +212 24 440 505
See on the Map

Four course set menu for two, excluding drinks and service, costs 550 Dirhams (approx. £35)


Dal Pescatore, Lombardy, Italy

Dal Pescatore


We woke up in London, and we’re now in Italy, so I should probably be grateful for Ryanair. But it’s a study in misery, isn’t it? The snide extra charges (“No Visa Electron? Sixteen quid, then.”) are as fun as a Tabasco eyedrop. Add to this a hot hour queuing, the Black Hole of Calcutta onboard, and the latest torture: pummelling passenger ears with techno and frantic adverts: ‘BOOZE IS BOGOF ON RYANAIR! GIN! VODKA! RUM! WHISKY! NOOOOWWWW!’

Noooooo, I think. Do Michelin consider these things when awarding vaut le voyage status? For dal Pescatore is just such a place: the first restaurant in Italy to receive three stars, and the first female chef, Nadia Santini. It’s in the middle of nowhere, too, making a non-gastronomic voyage to Runate (pop. 32) distinctly unlikely. The Santini family opened a vino e pesce affair here in the Twenties, and have gradually fostered a Mantuan classic.

Only an hour from the stilettos of Milan, Po valleyfolk aren’t remotely po-faced. Caterina and Alberto, who run our immaculate B & B, drove us here and introduced us to the owner, Antonio Santini. He greets us with a huge smile and a rugby club handshake, and we’re handed flutes of grassy Ca’ Del Bosco Spumante, the colour of September corn, in a private room with a beautiful old Moroccan rug. ‘Please take your seats whenever you like,’ says a rather nervous deputy maîtresse d’, as she sets down slices of Parmesan dropped on a hot griddle: externally crispy, internally chewily cheesy.

In the dining room – 30 covers or so – a log fire burns. The nine tables are perfectly spaced: private, not remote. Staff glide; service is smooth and unruffled. A calm Japanese sommelier brings a wine list like something out of Tolstoy and expertly helps us choose a dry Piedmont white and a medium-bodied Tuscan red. There are two seven-course menus, with service included: the Campagna and the Autunno. C and I order one each, though we’ll share plates. ‘Excellent, sir. The risotto on the Autunno and the tortelli on the Campagna are delicious: perhaps we could offer you both these dishes?’ Oh, go on then. Twist my arm.

We’re amused by a cleansing artichoke terrine with basil and glorious olive oil. Then off we go: another, Frenchier terrine comes: lobster tails set in champagne jelly with a dollop of Ossetra caviar, accompanied by citrus-poached eel. It looks beautiful, it’s technically dazzling, and the lobster is perfectly cooked. But there’s no relationship between the two main ingredients, and the dish would be no worse without the eel. Local baby snails with porcini and a sweet pea and garlic sauce are much more like it: honest about their roots, but newly classy, like a popular self-made uncle at a family wedding.

As the menu says, tortelli of pumpkin, amaretto and mostarda are ‘un classico dal Pescatore’. A hit of Parmesan, then fork meets pasta – a deep, almost apricot yellow, silken and elastic, but retaining bite. Their filling melds sweet, savoury and spice: mostarda, the Lombardic classic of fruits – white watermelon here – candied with mustard seed, adds a whisper of heat, with roast pumpkin, amaretti and more Parmesan. Saffron risotto follows, a puddle of pure Egyptian sunset. The stamens are generous; in the mouth, nubby grains stud buttery, cheesy sauce. Deep-fried strands of artichoke offer new texture and shade, but are barely needed: this is stand-out, standard-bearing stuff.

A fly settles on the tablecloth. A waiter materialises; he reaches down and deftly pinches the insect in his fingers, taking it away. When did they train him to do that? Tiny rigatoni are stuffed gorgeously with roast goose; but pearl barley soup con verduri ai 5 colori and black truffle is… well, at the risk of sounding somewhat pampered, it isn’t truffly enough. That exquisite, unparalleled earthiness normally hits you from six feet away: these just have a faint, quiet shroominess. Are they tinned? Old? And why are they black in the first place? We’re in prime white truffle season, and Alba is only a couple of hours away. It’s almost sad.

Antonio is circling the room. He politely – if somewhat perfunctorily – checks we’re OK, but has a matey glass of wine with next-door. Harrumph! Perhaps he knows them. Anyway, sea bass with diced porcini in a red wine sauce is an inspired union, expertly timed, and flawless. Beautifully cooked turbot comes with welcomely light salsa verde. Throughout, new cutlery appears, glasses are removed, topped up, water replenished. Now there’s hare in a sauce as black and gamey as tar-smeared roadkill (but better tasting, I imagine); and an entrancing beef daube, the shoulder simply melting, in plump Barbero sauce.

A welcome pause. Then Italian cheeses, including a benchmark goat’s. I mention how good I found it, and the waitress brings the producer’s name and number, unbidden.

We’re meant to order puddings from the à la carte, and three sound delicious: she sounds delighted when we ask for an extra one. Orange soufflé is puffy and proud; the waiter breaks the top and up whooshes a citrus tang. With delightful ceremony, he pours in passion fruit coulis. There’s also a benchmark tiramisù, with praline croccante and a carrot-hued orange zabaione; and a perfect Valrhona ganache with rum and Marsala. Petits fours appear, dinky and fun, on their little silver tray.

We’re in the little room in which we began, over five hours ago, sipping free, lethal grappas. Nadia herself emerges, looking almost angelic in immaculate whites. It’s nearly two in the morning, but she thanks us with genuine, unhurried warmth. She hands us a carefully wrapped hulk of Parmesan and signed copies of the menus, with the wines handwritten on them. Then kisses us goodbye, like an old friend.

I’m wary of calling anywhere ‘the best’ – eating here is a universe from, say, The Fat Duck, and comparisons seem futile. (Another reason to treat Restaurant’s perennial Top 50 with caution.*) But dal Pescatore uniquely combines world-class eating with the hot-water-bottle happiness of a family restaurant. In Oxfordshire, Raymond Blanc’s Manoir has long been a corporate event: once owned by Richard Branson, and now stage-managed by Orient-Express Hotels, whose PR department perpetuates Blanc’s ‘media’ career. Not only do dal Pescatore spare us the cost of the extra courses, not only do they throw in freebies (gifts, really) like the Parmesan, but – I can’t believe it – they round the bill down. It’s even enough to vaut the Ryanair voyage.

dal Pescatore, Runate, 46013 Canneto sull
Oglio, Mantova.
See on the TFYS map
Tel. +39 0376 723 001

Seven-course tasting menu for two, including service, costs €340; €500 all-in with four glasses of Spumante, three bottles of wine and three bottles of water. They didn’t charge for an extra dish each, an extra pudding, three further bottles of water, two grappas or an espresso. And amazingly, they rounded down by €16.

The restaurant has no rooms. I highly recommend our lovely, spacious B & B, 9 Muse, run by Caterina and Alberto. It’s in the nearest town, Canetto sull’ Oglio, about eight minutes away. They may well drive you themselves. Large twin room (ours was called Erato) with private terrace and bathroom, costs €58.
Tel. +39 335 800 76 01. http://www.9muse.it/

* If you must know, dal Pescatore is Number 23 this year, the highest in Italy.