Sunday, 6 March 2011

Little satisfaction in Little Venice

It is a cold, very cold night. Wisps of mist on the canal gain an ethereal quality from the reflection of the street lights. With foggy breath we hurriedly make our way over bridges and through the quiet streets of Little Venice towards The Warrington, a gastro pub belonging to the Gordon Ramsey group. No “pea souper” to add to the atmosphere but even so, it could almost have been romantic were we not shivering.

Buses, taxis, maybe a Boris Bike, the Bakerloo had closed, so arriving on time meant a twenty first century version of “Monte Carlo or Bust”. With all the chaos, two of the party were unable to make it without some Herculean attempt to cross London and, smile on my face, I was left to entertain the girlfriends.

I have to admit to being wary of gastro pubs. They leave me very confused. Is it a pub? Is it a restaurant? Is it a bird, a plane, etc?! I have experienced the joys of places like, for instance, the Canton Arms in Vauxhall, which served really excellent food, but that enjoyment was countered by the shock of the wine list prices which seem to take the pub into the realm of restaurants… or have I missed the point?

However, I overcome this inner turmoil as ‘F’ and I reach the door. Stepping through tile and terracotta, it is a veritable stage set of Edwardiana, oak framed mirrors, and some stained glass panes add to the cultured soft tones of gloominess. Hints of its history as a former brothel, art nouveau-esque swirls of reclining naked ladies on an ochre wall. As we pass upstairs into the warmth of the restaurant, it is almost possible to picture acrid fog of cigar smoke, to imagine the pianoforte hammering a popular tune in the background, to see bowler hatted gentlemen keenly lapping up the attention of louchely dressed young girls, while downing port or ale … no, you could. Really! I look around for Dick van Dyke.

We went for the Winter set menu. A nice basket of various home made breads were presented and consumed quickly. Wonderfully warm with the butter served on a small slate coaster. The waitress offered us more bread but we declined.

I tried a spoonful of the soup that one of us had ordered. White onion, Westcome cheddar and roasted almond soup. Wonderfully rich. Not too cheesy, a great stock flavour, nothing overwhelming the palate. A deliciously gentle combination of flavours.

However, I chose the Smoked ham hock, truffle potatoes, poached hens egg and mustard vinaigrette, in other words a Frisée aux lardons but in this case, with mixed baby leaves and potatoes.

I love this salad. It is one of my favourites. Simple and light, the smoky sweet and saline mix of pork, the prickly pepperiness of the salad leaves, and the cloying warmth of yolk from the poached egg broken down by that sharp wine vinegar acidity. Mopped up by fluffy bread, naturally.

My ham hock was really tender and flavoursome, just perfectly moist and moreish, hints of honey with the saltiness. The egg’s yolk was perfectly runny and hot. What is not to get wrong with this salad? Well, for me, there wasn’t enough sharpness of vinaigrette for my liking. I need that instant fix and cutting tang of a wine vinegar to break through the cloying yolk. Evidence of it was there with the small mustard grains but not enough to create an even balance. The truffle potato was indeed dark and nutty, strong in iron and floury, emphasising the greenness of the leaves.

I would have loved more, but had already eaten enough bread to become the face of Pilbury and was saving myself for the main course. Braised Dedham Vale feather blade with carrot purée, roasted field mushrooms. Chunks of slow cooked dark almost black beef in its jus, served with a shock of orange carrot and an earth coloured mushroom topped by vibrant green spinach.

The beef, apart from one rather tough and slightly dry chunk, was tender enough to break with the lightest touch of the fork. Perfectly rich in flavour. The carrot was sweet and earthy, and vibrantly appealing to the eyes. Spinach perfectly cooked, just wilted but slightly over salted. The flat mushroom, well it’s a mushroom isn’t it?

I was hungry and the ‘sensible’ portions now seemed to be rather light. I ended up feeling slightly, well, disappointed and wondering whether the à la Carte would have made any difference. Luckily, I had ordered some potatoes on the side which were nice and buttery though not nutty enough for me. However, they performed their remit and made up for the meat.

To go with this, we decided on a Côtes du Ventoux 2008 which although a bit cold at first, warmed up quickly to give tannic and berry flavours.

To finish, I was tempted by the Berry Panna Cotta with shortbread and berry compote but it was very hot in the restaurant and I was tired. We decided to move on to the coffee and short bread (an additional £3.50) instead. The coffee arrived but there was no short bread (although this omission was correctly reflected in the bill).

Shortbread aside, the attention to detail by the staff was really missing throughout the evening. And here is the rant: passing the card machine in front of my face to my friend instead of going behind me; spraying cleaner (a rather foul smelling one) and setting up of the next table while we were still drinking coffee (this at nearly half past ten); my coat lying on top of the drinks trolley at the top of the stairs rather than being put in a safe place (laid on top of glasses and next to a naked flame I should add, my bag on the floor beside it).

All these leave an impression that isn’t good. Friendly though it may be, and it was very amiable, there is no excuse for casual service, even if it is a pub, gastro pub, gastro pub restaurant, or whatever you wish to classify it as.

For value it was fine, really, fine. The bill was very reasonable, the food I ate was on the whole, good, well sourced and flavoursome, even if I was greedy for more. Stepping back into the freezing wind my coat, scarf and gloves were barely warm enough to combat the weather. So it was ironic then that The Warrington also left me feeling a bit cold, a feeling that it was just “fine, really fine”.

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