Sonny’s is not at its best

Saturday, August 16th , 2008

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The Princess Victoria is a rather unlikely gastropub. An old gin palace in Shepherd’s Bush, in recent years it had been better known for strippers than striped bass. Yet a new team including an ex Greenhouse chef and the ex-sommelier from the Capital have transformed this into that rare thing, a gastropub that works. The wine list itself is remarkable in its depth, though mark-ups are not quite the bargain you might expect out here in the sticks. Not everything in the kitchen comes off, with one poor dessert letting down an otherwise very good meal, but generally the food on the short menu is simple, honest and well made. They even make their own bread, which is something calculated to endear me to the place.
Royal China in Queensway may look like a tacky disco (the interior featured in Sexy Beast and has not changed one iota in the intervening years) but the Chinese food is the best in London outside the Michelin starred duo of Hakkasan and Yauatcha. The steamed gai lan with garlic is always delightful (as good a vegetable dish as you are likely to find in London, of whatever cuisine), and despite the scale of the place nothing ever seems to leave the kitchen that is not correctly cooked. Service has a little of that authentic Cantonese brashness for those missing the rudeness of Hong Kong, but I never mind because the food is always so tasty. Hot and sour soup tastes properly hot and sour, sea bass is properly cooked and even the rice is excellent.
Sonny’s is a neighbourhood restaurant in Barnes that I have been going to on and off for many years. At its best it has delivered excellent British food at tolerable prices, but it has been plagued but a revolving door of chefs over the years of distinctly variable quality. This has meant a bit of a roller coaster ride of dining experiences. A couple of years ago it was on an up, but after yet another chef change it would appear that the old place is rolling downhill again. A watery soup and a really poor passion fruit tart (hint: it should not be possible to actually fold your cooked pastry) let down some otherwise pleasant dishes. It looks as if my disappointing experience was not untypical, since there were just a scattering of diners even at the height of a Saturday night. I suspect yet another chef change may be in the offing. I have reduced the score on my web site from 4/10 to 2/10 based on this experience.
After my initial excellent dinner at Helene Darroze a few weeks ago, the set lunch was a little disappointing. Of course at £39 I wasn’t expecting langoustine and fillet steak, but the problem was that some of the dishes did not work as well as the more polished dishes I had tried in the evening. For example a take on black forest gateau was really just a soggy, if tasty, mess. A rustic dish of beef tomato stuffed with minced meat was fine, but the cooking didn’t really elevate this into anything beyond its simple nature. My companion, serious foodie Simon Carter, who edits an excellent website on fine dining, fared better with a lovely rich foie gras terrine, and an excellent lamb dish. There were all the trimmings (nibbles, further amuse bouche, etc) and so I think the value for money element is acceptable, I just found some flaws in some dishes, something I had not  encountered at my previous meal. I’ll try it again before forming a revised view; despite the odd issue today I still think this is proper cooking.
Patara in Greek Street delivers reliable, high quality Thai food in smart surroundings (see picture) at a slightly elevated price compared to run-of-the-mill Thai places, but it does deliver. There was a phase a decade or so ago in London where there seemed to be good Thai restaurants opening everywhere (Bahn Thai and Chiang Mai in Soho, for example) yet I cannot recall an interesting new Thai opening in years. There are plenty of pubs doing green chicken curry in a room upstairs, but very little beyond this. Surely there is an opportunity here for someone to dazzle us? In the early 1980s the Bombay Brasserie (itself now about to close tomorrow for a major revamp) changed perceptions about Indian cuisine – surely it is not so hard to imagine this happening for Thai food?  I’d love to be able to try the kind of elaborate Imperial Thai cooking that is served at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok without the slight drawback of a 15 hour flight. In the mean time Patara will have to do.