Thursday, April 05, 2007

Adventures in Dining Out - Andrew Edmunds; Le Cercle; Barrafina

I thought I would do a little round-up of restaurant reviews, as I seem to have been (prandially speaking) getting round a little bit recently...

A couple of weeks before my 21st birthday I was wandering through Soho and spied a hand-written menu pinned outside a building so dark and unassuming as to be almost invisible. The dishes described thereon impressed me, and the cute, small, apparently nameless restaurant to which it belonged charmed me. So, I declared, that's where we would eat in my 22nd year.

Four and a bit years on I finally made it to the place I later discovered was called Andrew Edmunds. (Soho can be tricky, I forgot which street it was on, we didn't know the name... For my 21st, we ended up at a Greek place and had a largely forgettable evening.)

Another birthday - Mum Saucepan's this time - precipitated the long overdue visit. We went for lunch on a cold rainy day a few weeks back, and spent a couple of pleasant hours in the cosy, crowded basement of the restaurant.

Aesthetically it really appeals to me - well-chosen flowers, candles, mirrors, plain tablecloths, a simple, comfy, stylish look.

The menu changes weekly, and features fresh, simple dishes - we had a scallop ceviche with guacamole; langoustines with lemon mayonnaise and a salad of jerusalem artichokes, artichoke hearts and snow pea shoots to start. All were good and clean and tasty.

Mains of smoked haddock on lentil and green bean salad, daube of beef and duck confit slipped down equally well. They taste un-tampered with, more homely than restaurant-y. Traditional, relatively hearty and yet stylish and somehow still very London-y. (I have got to stop this horrible habit of lazily adding 'y' to nouns to disguise the fact I'm all out of proper adjectives)
The wine list is extensive and the service is good. It's cosy and friendly and definitely recommended. Glad I got there in the end...

Since then, I've had the opportunity to eat at one place which I had no preconceptions of and found to be a real treat, and one place I had high expectations of and found to be merely good. (Sorry - no photos for either of these...)

To start with the latter, Barrafina attracted great press interest when it opened a few months back. The brothers who own it - Eddie and Sam Hart - regularly pop up in newspapers here and there, either with respect to their well-received smart Spanish restaurant Fino, or with Spanish recipes (though they are not actually Spanish, rather British hispanophiles). They added to their existing media-friendliness by setting up new venture Barrafina in a room barely bigger than my lounge room. Hence, only 20 or so people can eat at a time, and with a no-booking policy queues form, making it a rare spot and therefore in many eyes a highly desirable place to eat.

I visited Fino a year or so ago, and had some magnificent pork belly amongst other good and excellent dishes (along with a hearty amount of sherries, riojas and brandies which may contribute to why my memory of said dishes is rather patchy).
The owners chatted with us, we had views of the kitchen from where we ate at the long bar, and the barman was lovely and helpful, all making it a rather pleasant experience.

Barrafina is a pared down kind of Fino. The few seats are all around the L-shaped bar, behind which the chefs work, and a narrow ledge on one side of the room holds the drinks of those waiting for seats to empty.

In keeping with the smaller, more casual venue, the menu is shortened and simpler. We went for a razor clam special, a classic tortilla and the now-ubiquitous chorizo, with watercress. Clams were rather
like I've found snails in the past - nice and garlicky and chewy, but really you could be eating any number of simple little life-forms. They were a lot smaller than razor clams I've had in the past. The tortilla was good - pleasantly less cooked than many, but really just a tortilla. And chorizo, similarly good but unspectacular. A santiago tart was unneccessarily accompanied by some kind of muesli-fruit mixture, and was not as good as others I've had.

One of the brothers - Sam - was there, welcoming guests, serving, clearing glasses; admirably involved. Our waitress however, albeit very friendly, was a little intrusive we found, and not altogether helpful.
At £22 a head with drinks, it's not bad value, but I wouldn't queue round the block for it.

A meal at Le Cercle on the other hand, I would happily wait in line for. I was a little sceptical - hidden away in the basement of a hotel on a side street just off Sloane Square, I was worried it would be overpriced and stuffy. A menu that could be considered somewhat gimmicky - small dishes are grouped into categories such as Marin, Terroir, Vegetal, from which you create a tasting menu for yourself or to share - didn't help allay my fears.

However, we soon stopped worrying when we started eating. In a tiny black pot, suitable it would seem for a pixie, or a squirrel, we found chanterelles in a port and wine reduction so full of flavour a single pixie-sized spoon seemed to spread flavour right throughout my body. Ravioles de Royan - a kind of very posh version of that lazy-persons favourite supermarket 3-minute pasta parcels - were bathing in a truffle juice, and were also delightful. A sliver of sea bass and some chunks of stuffed rabbit with a chicory gratin were similarly well executed and full of interesting tastes and textures. The piece de resistance however was a pudding which - I lie not - made me grin like a cheshire cat completely involuntarily. Roasted pineapple was somehow much more pineapple-y than I could have imagined and the accompanying spiced toffee ice-cream was one of the most dreamy things I have ever eaten - and this from someone who is not normally a massive fan of ice-cream.

The dishes are very small - so don't go if you prefer hearty, generous cooking - but we found that we felt fully satisfied without feeling full. I think the intensity and interest of the flavours means you savour the food for much longer and so fill up in a very grown-up kind of way.

The room is very smart and cosy - separated with chiffon-y curtains, and with views on to the wine cellar at one end (they have a large selection and recommend different glasses for each dish), and a cheese room at the other.

To me it felt somehow kind of foreign - I suppose because I don't frequent that style of restaurant all that often, and so gave me the pleasant impression of being out of London for the evening. A mini gastronomic holiday if you will.

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