Of all the innumerable, pointless edicts of so-called good manners, the ‘clear your plate’ rule is undoubtedly the worst. Parents torture their children with it, forcing them to finish each last incinerated scrap, every mushy morsel of overcooked veg. It’s just cruel. And – like so much tabletop etiquette – no-one has ever offered a coherent justification for it. ‘Think of the Africans!’ shriek the bearded finger-waggers. Do they really believe it makes a difference to starving people whether diners tens of thousands of miles away stuff themselves till they explode or just eat until they’re satisfied? Of course not. The hungry want to fill their own bellies: they couldn’t care less about yours. I’d rather hear someone say ‘Give me your wallet’ than ‘Finish your plate’.
And if it’s not that, leaving anything behind is an ‘insult to the host’. What drivel. Cooks deserve to know if their food is terrible: otherwise you condemn all future guests to the same horrible experience. ‘I know my clam bake with Marmite may sound a touch odd, but it always goes down a treat.’ Dinner parties become lugubrious ordeals, dissolutions of happiness, exorcised of pleasure. All the love and generosity, the richness and giving, the great purring glow of sheltering and nourishing, vanish before bad food. I hereby launch a campaign for us, as Britons, to leave what we don’t want, and to complain loudly and embarrassingly whenever the food is bad. Restaurants and dinner parties are equally kosher. You heard it here first.
The Salisbury appeases both plate-clearers and nibblers, basing half its menu on the emetically conflicted pairing ‘English tapas’. Lots of restaurants seem to be doing this nowadays, doubtless prompted by the great R-word. The menu here is good, with a raft of interesting and exciting dishes. You have no problem ordering.
It’s a former pub not far from where I live. You can tell it was once pretty grotty, but now it’s lightly, brightly revamped, skylit and blue. It’s a pleasant dining room, actually, albeit with a slight museum caff vibe; my mum took me on one of her sadly infrequent visits from Auld Reekie.
When the food arrives, I realise The Salisbury offers the gastronomic equivalent of The Crying Game. It all looks great until… aah. One tapa is a ‘veggy Scotch egg’. Why anyone would conceive of such a thing is completely beyond me. It’s a hardish-boiled egg in breadcrumbs on a puddle of capery oil. (There’s a similar recipe in the most staggeringly pointless cookbook in living memory, but at least the author doesn’t call it a ‘veggy Scotch egg’.) Not five minutes’ walk from The Salisbury is the peerless Harwood Arms, where Stephen Williams’s venison Scotch egg is the best bar snack in London. The version here, presumably included to plump up the menu for herbivores, is a terrible idea, distractedly executed.
Chipolatas are bog-standard, their chutney unpleasantly tepid. A salad of pea shoots with feta and balsamic glaze is excellent, though: crisp and green and summery, with fresh cheese, though the vinegar does nothing for it. ‘Pete’s curry’ is tasty, smoothed with coconut milk and smoky with cumin. Gnocchi and smoked chicken are scalding globules with clumps of string. Ten quid says they came straight from the microwave. A side bowl of cabbage is faultless, basking in melted butter and spiked with infant roundels of chive.
Amongst the mains, a pie of pork, apple and cider is good, with a big honk of piggy knuckle, sealed by pastry flaking in filigrees round the edges. Mum has a crab tart with a couple of prawns. It’s steep at £12, and the tart, though well flavoured, is grossly undercooked, leaching onto the plate (an annoying wooden plank) in a slow vomity puddle. Pudding is a deconstructed strawberry cheesecake: a clutch of Elsantas with a bit of cream and some soggy Digestives mixed with butter. It looks like a rat run over by a lawnmower in the snow.
The Salisbury has a great big problem, and it’s not the food, the service, the décor or any of the other things that vex chefs and owners. Its problem is The Harwood Arms. In every imaginable respect, Williams’s incomparable pub trounces the more recent opening. And that’s a shame, and it makes my flinty heart twitch with pity, because they’ve tried hard here and they clearly mean well. But I’d cross London to eat at The Harwood Arms – and because of that, I’d think twice about crossing the road to eat here.
The Salisbury, 21 Sherbrooke Road, London SW6
Tel. +44 (0)20 7381 4005
See on the Map
Dinner for two, excluding drinks and service, costs about £60
Sorry about the photos this time – I forgot my camera. Proper pictures will resume in the next review.