On Friday afternoon I was idly casting about for a place to have lunch in Chatham. Options were limited. This quick, unsuccessful Google led to me wondering if I could squeeze in lunch at Hawksmoor Seven Dials once I’d caught the train back to London. This in turn led me to contemplate Sunday lunch there with a glass of Shaky Pete’s Ginger Brew. No, I thought, N will never go for it. By this point I had completely lost sight of my original objective and was just exploring more and more options for dining. Suddenly I was very, very hungry. Knowing that the fridge contained a red cabbage, some decidedly floppy carrots and little else, I wondered if I could persuade N to go out for tapas. She was once step ahead of me and was already on her way down to my office.
Having had the unsated desire for pretty much bang on a year, we decided we would try Salt Yard on Goodge Street. There was no chance of getting a table but it 5pm so we thought our chances of sitting at the bar were relatively high. In fact, the night was so young that we thought we would stop by The Piccadilly for a drink. Unfortunately, however, they have now been completely taken over by the dodgy looking Ristorante Biagio and the once proud list of draught and bottled beers was evaporated. We left as quickly as we arrived.
After that, and by the time we had wended our way North through town, it was getting on for half six; early for Spain, right in the thick of it for Central London. As expected, the next table wasn’t until the end of the evening but we had also missed the the places at the bar. Determined not to be refused we allowed ourselves to be relegated to the small strip of tables outside on the street. In terms of comfort, this wasn’t a problem since October remains unseasonably mild but dining is rarely improved by being repeatedly heckled by a raddled, gurning Chelsea fan with no teeth. Such are the perils of al fresco London dining. I was also reminded of how wonderful the smoking ban is and, as the couples on either side of us sparked up, I wondered how I’d manage to spend so long in pubs pre-ban. We started with bar snacks of peppers padron and boquerones. This was a mistake. A literal one since I had mistaken boquerones for rojones, the latter apparently being a term made up by the Norfolk Arms. Well, I did get a D in GSCE Spanish. Anyway, my loss was N’s gain since she is not averse to the dirty, dirty anchovy. We followed this with courgette flowers stuffed with goats’ cheese, their signature dish and a much more welcome sight. It is hard to go wrong with this combination melted cheese, semi-tempura vegetable and drizzled honey and it was lovely but I did think the courgette itself could have been cooked a touch longer.
The rest of our dishes then came in quick sucession and it was possible to find fault with all of them. The best was a salad of baby squid, chorizo, broad beans and friggitelli peppers but even here the squid could have been better quality since it fell foul of its Achilles’s tentacle: rubberiness. Sticking with seafood, crab and chilli croquettes were lacking in any chilli and herb mayonaise was not the ideal accompaniment. This would have worked better as an Asian rather than European dish. Similarly, I couldn’t help but compare the desperately underpowered seared tuna with marinated beetroot and tarragon to the wonderful tuna I had at the Hare & Tortoise the other week. The tarragon was entirely abscent, whatever the beetroot had been marinated in wasn’t very potent and the tuna was completely flavourless, leaving the crispy quail’s egg the sole mouthful of joy on the plate. Finally, there was chargrilled polenta with girolles, baby artichokes, pinenuts and a parmesan mousse. The mousse was lovely but the polenta was just stodge and you would need a magnifying glass to find the tiny shards of girolles. These were all dishes that sounded great on the menu and where obvious care had been taken with the composition and presentation but this wasn’t backed up by the kitchen. (To make a further unflattering comparison, I took N to Bocca De Lupa for our wedding anniversary and both their octopus and polenta highlighted how simplicity in the service of intensity can triumph over empty faff.)
Now a positive note before returning to a bit more negativity. Well, a little bit more negativity first since, as the evening, went on I made progressively better drinks choices. I started with a glass of Breganze Prosecco Rosato described as off-dry and it was indeed neither dry nor fruity but instead stranded and depthless. Careful to avoid repeating this experience, I next went for Don Nuno Oloroso Seco, the beefiest sherry they had, and it was as dark and nutty as advertised. N meanwhile had a glass of Fagus de Coto de Hayas 2008 which was irresistably described as having “almost cult status wine”. This is simulataneously profoundly wanky and extremely tempting and it was a cracker, smoky to the point of gunpowder under the surface. With cheese, I slipped into a gorgeous floral dessert wine which they describe as “Cortesia di Morassi” but which seems to be a typos.
So, the cheese and typography. According to their website, Salt Yard do have a dessert menu but we weren’t offered this and instead were only allowed to order cheese. We duly did this but it would have been easier if they hadn’t catastrophically designed the cheese section of the menu. Looking at it online, I think I can see what happened. There are half a dozen cheeses available at £4.50 as well as a couple of more expensive one: a selection of three manchegos with quince membrillo and a truffle percorino. This is clear from the website but the combination of milk type and provenence with unfortunate font and punctuation choices means that the two pricer ones look a lot like cheese selections. This is approximately true of the three manchegos which we received but the table next to us who thought they were also getting manchego weren’t particularly happy when the pecorino arrived. This is an instance where the restaurant could definitely do a bit more to help their punters make an informed decision.
£55 a head including service from a really lovely French waiter. That is pretty steep, particularly given our booze intake was restricted to two glasses of sherry and two of wine. It is also, coincidently, means that the total bill was exactly the same as the bill for five people when we ate at the Canton Arms the next night. Now, admittedly my mother-in-law only had a cheese toasty and we ordered some of our drinks at the bar but it is still telling. I remember someone telling me that if a couple wanted to eat a mediocre meal and get no change from a hundred quid then London was the best city in the world. Restaurants like Salt Yard are the reason for that cynicism.