This week I venture to Croydon

Saturday, February 14th , 2009

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You would hardly think that now was a great time to open a new restaurant, in the teeth of the worst recession in living memory. Moreover January and February are the worst months for restaurant business, so I was all the more impressed when I visited Fish and Grill, the new venture from Malcolm John, who set up Vacherin in Chiswick, and more recently Le Cassoulet in Croydon, where he lives. Admittedly this was a Saturday night, but Fish and Grill has only been open since mid December, and not only were they doing two sittings at this 60 odd seat restaurant, but they were fully booked for both. Apparently they are even doing a good trade on weekday lunches. The food had some ups and downs on our visit, but the seafood was of good quality, the menu was simple and appealing, and prices were reasonable. This demonstrates that even in bad times it is possible for a restaurant to prosper if you can get the formula right.
Tendido Cuatro is the sibling of the excellent Cambio de Tercio, and has recently been re-launched with a novel idea: gourmet paella. Paella is familiar to anyone who has been to Spain, yet for all the tapas there is in London, I struggle to think of anywhere I can order paella, which like risotto needs to be made from scratch and so presents some issues for a commercial kitchen. This novelty seems to have worked, as business is apparently significantly up since the re-launch (70 covers on Sunday lunch is something that most restaurants would be grateful for at the moment). I found the place friendly and the atmosphere good, but perhaps because Cambio is so very good, I found the cooking on my visit rather disappointing. Objectively it is a pleasant experience, with some slips in the kitchen but generally acceptable food, but I’ll just return to Cambio, whose cooking is in a different league at present.
Zafferano was on good form this week. A pair of diver-caught scallops were large and plump, cooked whole as they should be (some London restaurants slices scallops up, presumably to make these costly ingredients look as if they are bigger than they are, but I prefer them whole) and had really good sweet taste. A risotto of sage and pumpkin which followed was a fine example of how a risotto should turn out, the rice creamy in texture with just a hint of bite left in it, the rice having thoroughly absorbed the stock.   A little cone of vanilla ice cream at the end showed ice cream that used good quality vanilla pods in ample quantity to get plenty of distinct vanilla flavour. 
Tarantella is a thoroughly decent local pizzeria, run by an Italian family, with a pizza chef from Naples.   Its pizzas are in a different class from chain ones, and the welcome is friendly and genuine. 
Ambassade de l’Ile is a restaurant (pictured) which received some xenophobic and in some cases  frankly ignorant reviews in the press when it opened last summer, yet its two-star chef from Lyon cooked the best dishes I ate in London last year, and Michelin gave the team a well-deserved star in the 2009 guide. The tasting menu we tried this week featured a lovely potato and truffle tart, scallops with cherry vinegar and an excellent beef pot au feu with winter vegetables. This is a restaurant where the passion of the chef clearly shows through in the classy cooking, and deserves a wider audience.  Prices are high, though there is now a cheap lunch menu in addition to the a la carte. 
Antony Worrall- Thompson demonstrated this week that TV appearances do not necessarily ensure customers in restaurants. He has closed four of his six restaurants, leaving the Windsor Grill and Kew Grill. I can’t say that I have ever enjoyed his food at any stage of his career, but obviously it is very sad for the staff involved. The wreckage continues with Jean Christophe Novelli, whose two pubs have also folded (hat tip to RH for spotting this).