Giaconda dining rooms is a tiny place, seating just over 30 diners at one time, and with a similarly small kitchen. Chef Paul Merrony cooks pretty much every dish, as in the kitchen it is just him, a kitchen porter and sometimes a helper to do some preparation. The wine list no longer has a fixed mark-up but is still a bargain by London standards. The list has around 80 choices, ranging in price from £19 to £180, but with an average price of just £30. 80% of the list is under £40 a bottle. Mark-ups average just 2.4 times retail price. We drank Ostertag Pinot Gris 2007 at £42 for a wine that cost £23 in the shops, and Vintage Urbina “Seleccion” 1999 at £30 for a wine that retails at £13.
What follows are notes from a meal in February 2012.
My starter of spaghettini (thin spaghetti) with crab (£15) involved pasta that had excellent texture, with a mix of white and brown crab meat and precise seasoning (4/10). Chicken saltimbocca (£17) i.e. chicken wrapped in prosciutto was delicious, the chicken kept moist by its coating of ham, served on a base of risotto Milanese and garnished with button onions and sage. The risotto was made using good stock, the chicken carefully cooked and again the dish featured very accurate seasoning (4/10).
White peach vacherin was not quite to the same level as the savoury courses: white peaches are not exactly in season in February, but the meringue was properly made and the dish still worked (3/10). Other dishes I sampled were also cooked, such as carefully cooked brill and a nice crème brulee for dessert. The bill came to £55 a head, with plenty of wine. This is simple but terrific value food, such a rarity in central London.
What follows are notes from a meal in September 2008.
Paul Merrony made a name for himself at Merrony’s in Sydney in the 1990s, having trained for a time earlier in his career with the Roux Brothers and then at Tour d’Argent in Paris. Now he has opened up in simple premises in raffish Denmark Street. This is not your usual high cost London designer restaurant refit. Tables and chairs are basic, there are no tablecloths, and (a great positive in this age of excessively noisy dining rooms) there is even carpet rather than the regulation wooden floor. The room is very small and space is at a premium, but the atmosphere is relaxed. The effort has gone into the menu and the wine list, which are a breath of fresh air. The menu is full of dishes that are appealing, and the prices are remarkably fair for central London: starters are £5 - £6.50, mains £9.50 - £13, desserts £5 - £6.
The wine list started at £19, and has plenty of choice under £30. Albert Mann Riesling Tradition 2007 is £24 for a wine that costs around £12 retail. Chablis Grand Cru Vaudesir Gerard Tremblay 2005 is £36 for a wine that costs £24 retail. 2001 Brunello di Montalcino Il Paradiso di Manfredi is £53 for a wine that costs about £42 in the shops. Hopefully you see the pattern emerging. Yes, there is just a fixed mark up of about £12 a bottle, whatever the wine. This is a wine lover’s dream.
The bread is white floury sliced bread from the superb Soho Italian deli I Camisa, where I have been buying my olives for a couple of decades. I started with shellfish bisque, and I found this very well made. In a bistro this soup can often be watery, as the key to a good one is a proper stock involving plenty of fish (which many places skimp on) and good seasoning, which here was spot on (a strong 3/10, bordering 4/10). A rigatoni “puttanesca”, a classic Naples sauce with a colourful history. The word means “pasta the way a whore would make it”, but quite why this name arose is the subject of some debate. It is a spicy tomato sauce with garlic, dried hot peppers, anchovy fillets, capers and basil. The pasta had good texture, but the sauce was overly acidic, which makes me wonder if the capers had been kept in vinegar and not properly rinsed before use (2/10). My dinner companions also enjoyed a tasty dish of crispy pig trotters with egg mayonnaise.
For main course I had pleasant fishcakes with a good tartar sauce and a green salad (2/10). Better was roast salmon with deconstructed piccalilli, which featured very carefully cooked fish (4/10). The salmon was farmed (at £12 for the dish it would be, despite the misguided insistence of our waiter that it was wild) but it had good taste. A grilled steak was excellent, and even the tomatoes with it had some taste, a rarity in the UK. Chips were excellent (6/10), crisp and a sensible size. Tripe braised with chorizo, smoked paprika and butter beans was a spicy, rich affair that also went down well. For dessert tiramisu was the star (5/10), but my chocolate mousse cake with coffee sauce was well made, the coffee sauce not dominating the chocolate (3/10) while poached peach with Eton mess was also very good. This is real cooking at prices that are exceptionally fair for London.