European Report #4: Wine and Dine
The UK continues to disprove its former international reputation for the worst food in the world. Or, to put it this way, good places to eat are no longer so hard to find.
On my first night in London, I ventured to Crystal Palace for a meal at Joanna’s, which has outlasted every single one of its competitors these last 25 years and more.
It’s easy to see why – if you’re a meat eater and not well-traveled. For my fussy vegetarian part, I felt let down that the only main course option was a Plum Tomato, Goats Cheese & Basil Tart – which sounds enticing enough but for the fact that a variety on this theme shows up as lone vegetarian item on almost every trendy menu. (See Cerutti’s review below.) I ordered it anyway, and it was good; even better was the spicy squash soup that formed part of the Daily Specials. I couldn’t complain.
On the drinks front, split between two of us, a delicious Mansion House Bay Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand almost made up for the fact that both the Pinot Noir, from Richard Hamilton in Australia’s McLaren Vale, and the Rioja from Spain’s Marques de Arienzo tasted tired (open for 24 hours or more?) and were served far too warm. Service was polite but not observant: I had to ask three times for some water, which was one less time than at the Pizza Express in Olympia the next day. Joanna’s is good, but it’s resting on its laurels – and at the prices it charges, that’s not acceptable.
It’s not, however, as expensive as some of the joints on Charlotte Street, one of London’s major restaurant rows over the years. I was kind enough to be treated by my book editor to a meal at Passione, the web site to which claims it “won the award as the best italian restaurant in london 2005” – though from whom, it does not say. Still, I wouldn’t quibble the acclaim. Passione understands service, which was attentive, polite and responsive, but never obtrusive. Living up to its name, it is also in love with its food. Small bowls of fresh cherry tomatoes and large olives are presented gratis. A basket of fresh bread is brought frequently to the table: the focaccia, baked daily on site, was simply sensational. And we appreciated how the waitress brought over a bowl with three kinds of uncooked fresh mushrooms to present – rather than just announce – the ingredients for the cep mushroom risotto. Coming on top of a hefty appetizer – ribbon pasta in a summer truffle sauce – this was my idea of the perfect lunch.
Not that such luxury comes cheap: lunch for two cost my host about £80, and that was without alcohol – on which note, most of the suits around us were splitting at least one bottle of Italian red between them, recalling that question asked by many a foreigner of the British: how do they ever get any work done in the afternoons?
Up in Beverley, the independent cafés of my last post notwithstanding, great restaurants are something of a rarity. Wednesday’s in Wednesday Market closed a couple of years back; the Blue Pelican out in Norwood itself only lasted a couple of years and has now become a TexMex, Cactus Jacks; La Scala delivers good quality but relatively standard Italian fare; and Valencia, in a stroke of marketing genius that simultaneously acknowledges its demographic and therefore its culinary limits, combines Italian and Indian food on the same menu. It’s a wonderful place to go if you don’t take it seriously. (“I’ll have the penne vodka biryani please, with a mozzarella somosa to start and some spaghetti pilau on the side.”)
All this explains why Cerutti 2 tends to be booked so far up front that I’ve never gotten to eat there – until this last trip, where I gave my mother just enough advance notice for her to snap up a Friday night’s last remaining booking for 7pm. We both worried that my experience might suffer from over-expectation, and I did indeed fear the worst when we were seated in a deserted restaurant (where were all the other 7pm bookings?), and offered a menu that listed fish item after fish item, interspersed by the occasional steak, but nothing vegetarian except for, you guessed it, the goats cheese tart for starters.
But suddenly, with the waitress standing above us, pen at the ready, I noticed the day’s ‘table d’hôte’ menu included a vegetable stroganoff. Score! The dish was spicy, creamy and cheesy – there’s an assumption in the UK that vegetarians love dairy, and coming on top of that goat’s tart appetizer, this was more cheese than I needed for a day – but it was good. The breads were of quality, and service was like it should be at Joanna’s: that simple request for a glass of water was met by a jug of the stuff.
My mother, embarrassed perhaps by her failure to secure a table on any of my previous visits, encouraged me to order as much and as freely as I desired: not being a meat eater, the best I could do was order an unnecessary side of chunky home-made fries alongside my main course, and go for a rather costly bottle of Fairhall Downs 2005 Sauvignon Blanc, from the Brancott part of New Zealand’s reliable Marlborough Valley. At the last moment, as the waiter brought the bottle out for presentation, I thought to switch over to another wine, but when I suggested as much, his face dropped: he’d already unscrewed the cap to this one, he explained. I’ve noticed this habit elsewhere in the UK and have to ask: what’s the point of presenting a wine for approval if it’s already open?
To Cerutti 2’s credit, the waiter quickly offered to replace our bottle before pouring – which I’d like to believe indicates that the customer is always right regardless of restaurant expense, though of course given that we didn’t see him open it, I can’t promise that it wasn’t already someone else’s reject! Anyway, we stuck with the wine at hand, which turned out to be the right decision. Because this Fairhall Downs was one of the loveliest New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs I’ve tasted – and I’ve had a few, especially on this last English trip, where they seemed to be the most reliable wine to order in either pub or restaurant. The color was more golden that most, and while the flavor profile was typically tropical – all pineapple, mango, guava, and kiwi – the wine had body and balance, finesse and elegance, and a generous richness, that is lacking from far too many NZ SBs these days. I can not recommend this wine highly enough.
(I would, however, recommend that Cerutti 2 expand its wine list beyond the preponderance of Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Grigios: a greater choice of equally fish-friendly wines like Chenin Blanc, Viognier and Riesling would not have gone amiss.)
I couldn’t fit dessert – though I was tempted to see if the treacle sponge with custard could take me back to the days of atrocious primary school dinners. Instead, I watched my mother get stuck into a richer-than-Bill Gates Baileys-and-chocolate mousse and fueled my own energy levels with a fresh coffee.
Presented with the bill, my mother remarked, almost disappointed, that the wine I had chosen was inexpensive. Not really, I thought; I had actually pulled the classic move of ordering the second priciest on the list. Peering over the bill, I realized that, despite ordering so freely we presumed we were being charged a la carte, the restaurant figured we had near enough followed their fixed menu pricing and charged us accordingly. And so, although coffee had been marked (somewhat unfairly) as an extra, mine was considerd a dessert; and the Fairhall Downs wine was merely marked up above what must be the unspoken £10 allowance for the house bottle. The result? £57 for the two of us, a fair price for such a fine 2+ course meal with wine. Oh, and by the time we left, every table around us was taken, at least half of them by families at which retired mums (and dads) were treating their grown children (and partners). It was a lovely Friday night site. Now Beverley just needs a couple more restaurants of similarly affordable quality so that we no longer need to book a month in advance and, hopefully, everybody will be happy.