Monday, 10 May 2010
right first time: 101 Pimlico Road
I'm aware that there's a school of thought that believes a restaurant should be visited no fewer than three times before it gets reviewed. It is not a school of thought to which I subscribe. In my view, if they're taking your money, they should deliver the goods - no excuses. As a paying punter, I really don't want to hear about how the chef's dog has chewed the saucepan and is therefore somehow responsible for my lacklustre meal.
Via the almighty source of information that is Twitter (thanks especially to @Gastro1, @Willielebus, and @mcdulwich), I have for some while been forming the impression that a newish eaterie just off the edge of so-called Mozart Square (yes, the musical maestro once lived 'ere, apparently), is one of those places that has been getting it very right. And since the Square also boasts a Daylesford Organic shop and the new William Curley Dessert Bar, I needed no further encouragement to grace the neighbourhood with my presence and put 101 Pimlico Road to the test myself.
Without any more ado, let me just say this - I'm glad I did. Very glad. This is a place that's doing it right: great food, beautifully cooked (by ex-Tom Aikens alumnus, Keith Goddard), and at perfectly acceptable prices (particularly if you opt for the set lunch menu, which is an utter bargain at £16 for 2 courses or £20 for 3). I've already been back once - not because I felt it needed a second chance, but - shock, horror - BECAUSE I WANTED TO.
To the food, then. My first meal was, indeed, from the bargainous set lunch menu, and went like this:
To start, warm chicken liver salad:
I must have eaten several times my bodyweight in liver over the years, but this was as good an example as any I've eaten, anywhere. Actually, scrap that - it was better. Fat, creamy, silky, melting pieces of liver cooked to the kind of perfection that would have made the chicken proud, if only it had lived to tell the tale. A plate of joyous meaty stuff not in any way spoilt by the neatly-judged salad that accompanied it.
Next, grilled quail:
I might know my liver from my elbow, but I am a good deal less familiar with quail. I've eaten it several times, but never been particularly inspired by the experience, especially when I've had the dubious pleasure of trying to prise off a microgram of meat from its miniscule frame. Deboned, however, as it is at 101, it is an altogether different proposition. Quail DOES taste of something after all, not least when it picks up char from the grill and has a chef like Keith making sure it doesn't go horribly dry. This was simply delicious, and on this showing, I may eat it rather more often.
And, to finish, chocolate tart with Maldon salt and peanut butter ice cream:
A confession. I was never not going to choose this. Chocolate AND peanut butter could be my all-time favourite combination. And that, I'm afraid, is reflected in the photo. So eager was I to get my choppers around it all that I completely forgot to get clicking with the camera. I apologise. I remembered with a morsel left, and I think that probably tells its own story. This was everything that chocolate tart and peanut butter ice cream should be. The pastry was beautifully short and thin, the chocolate filling was light but rich and luxurious, and the peanut butter ice cream had all the peanut-iness that you could wish for. It, too, was a creation of lovely lightness - more gelato-like, in fact.
In all, a thoroughly enjoyable meal, and one that I really couldn't fault. It's not many times that I can honestly say that.
Fast forward a couple of weeks to a hideously cold, windy, rain-strewn Monday. A Bank Holiday Monday, of course. What to do? A revisit to 101 seemed by far the best - nay, the only - option, frankly.
This time round, and embracing the holiday mood with as much fervour as I could muster, I opted for the à la carte menu.
So, this time - to start, spicy fried whitebait:
This is getting a bit like Groundhog Day. 'I must have eaten several times my bodyweight in [insert name of food here] over the years, but this was as good an example as any I've eaten, anywhere. Actually, scrap that - it was better.' OK, insert 'whitebait', and there you have it. For all those whitebait I've eaten, most were done an injustice - either cooked to bullets, or over- or under-seasoned. Either that, or they simply weren't whitebait worthy of their species in the first place. These specimens, by contrast, were fat, fishy, juicy critters treated with the lightest (another recurring theme here, it seems) of spicing and frying, blessed with a gorgeously creamy accompanying aioli. Yummy yummy yum. My only criticism is that there were, for me, too many of them - with 2 courses still to follow, I really didn't feel I could polish the lot off and have sufficient room left for the rest of the meal. I fear that age may be turning me into a wimp.
Next up, 'Ten hour Lamb shoulder, spiced fruit couscous, smoked aubergine purée':
Yes, I know. It doesn't look THAT great. Which is unfortunate, because it was. If you like sweet/savoury combos of Moroccan inspiration, then this is for you. I have NEVER eaten cous cous as good as this (and certainly not in Morocco). Beautifully, beautifully done. Moist, fruity (with the plumpest raisins and apricots), nutty, spicy loveliness. The lamb, as you can probably imagine, was fantastically tender and flavoursome, and the smoked aubergine turd - sorry, purée - while looking like nothing remarkable, was delicious in its own right, and married with the other components without detracting from or overwhelming them.
Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand, once again, to finish:
Hmm, y'see, here's the chocolate problem again. I was never not going to choose a warm chocolate brownie, even if it didn't come with peanut butter ice cream.
Now, rightly or wrongly, I like to think I know a thing or two about brownies. And warm ones shouldn't be so dense as their non-warmed siblings, otherwise they become teeth-stickers of the worst order. Keith knows this. His version positively melted in the mouth, while still maintaining enough 'bite' to ensure you feel you're getting your money's worth. It's obvious the chocolate is Valrhona. It's all so very perfect. And that ice cream? Not too shabby, either, and full of heady vanilla.
In sum? This is food you want to eat. And eat more of. It's not flashy, gizmo-supported stuff, it's just bloomin' good food, cooked really well.
The team responsible for 101 know their eggs, and much else. Will Guess, the improbably youthful-looking 24-year old owner (whatever he's on, I want some of it), seems to take real pride in his gaff, and rightly so. On both occasions I've been there, so was he. That says something. His serving staff are young, capable, and friendly and free from 'is everything alright?'-itis. Glory be.
In Keith, he has found a talented, committed chef who has strong ideas about the kind of food he wants to serve up, and who has the skill to do it. He is big on sourcing premium ingredients (much of the meat comes from O'Shea's, for example), and he knows what he's doing with them. A chef who chooses to let the food speak for itself, instead of toying with it for the sake of it, is to be cherished. Oh, and he makes his own ice creams. I should probably marry him, come to think of it.
And I should also mention the wines. The list is not lengthy, but is chocka with quality. why? Because 90% of them come from Bibendum Wines, that's why. And I gather that BW are constantly working with 101 to provide even more excellence and value for money, particularly at the top end.
Only its location and space go slightly against 101. Just off the main hubbub and thrum of Mozart Square, you'd be forgiven for not spotting it. And its interior is a little on the small and narrow side to be ideal, which is possibly a reason why previous incarnations on the site haven't thrived.
But if you're going to a restaurant for its location and space, then you're surely not bothered sufficiently about what you're actually going to eat and drink, dammit.
Love food, love wine? Then I say this: go to 101 Pimlico Road. You'll probably end up loving Keith, too.