From Barnes to north London

Saturday, March 13th , 2010

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Riva is a clearly successful local restaurant that has been plying its trade in Barnes for a couple of decades.  Based on my visit this week the strengths are an appealing Italian menu and fairly good quality ingredients (e.g. wild sea bass, which is more than plenty of posh restaurants in central London manage).  Technique was also generally OK, though there were slips, such as soggy Swiss chard with the fish, and a slightly watery risotto.  The waiters were pleasant though they seemed rather startled at various times throughout the evening, clearly under some pressure in dealing with a full dining room though this didn’t stop one waitress sitting down and chatting for long periods of time, in clear view of the dining room, while her colleagues ran around).  The thing that seemed out of place was the pricing, with one of our main courses at £25, and starters mostly around the £12 mark.  This is all very well in Mayfair, but seemed out of place in a rather drab dining room in (admittedly prosperous) Castelnau.

Villandry has branched out from its Marylebone base and has now opened an outlet in Chiswick, which is this case is more of a bistro and less of a deli compared to its parent.  I didn’t have very high expectations, but was won over by simple but properly cooked food and fair prices, though the service was very patchy.  The open kitchen (pictured) is a nice touch, and the place was packed out just weeks after opening.

I first visited Morgan M in 2004, about a year after it opened, and at the time Morgan Meunier’s cooking reminded me of the style he showed at Monsieur Max.  He is a gifted cook, but showed a tendency to over-complicate, and there was some inconsistency in the meal, which I nonetheless enjoyed very much overall.  On revisiting this week the menu has become rather simpler, but consistency is still an issue: there was an overcooked fish dish, an overcooked dessert and some over-seasoning in one dish.  This is frustrating, as there is a lot to like about Morgan M, with its appealing menu and willingness to aim a bit higher than the rather uniform bistro food that now seems to appear all over London. 

Haandi continues to produce authentic Punjabi food of a level that is unmatched by London’s clutch of much grander, yet constantly disappointing, Michelin starred eateries.  The attention to detail here is evident in little touches like the popadoms, which are remarkably light.  The cooking of vegetables is as good as you will find anywhere in London, with careful spicing and real respect for the texture of the main components.  Tandoori cooking also demonstrates skill, with a vast portion of tender spicy chicken tikka a delight.  The décor and service are nothing to remark upon, but the cooking here is genuinely classy, and the prices almost laughably cheap given that this is near Harrods.  Our meal, with drinks, set us back just £22 a head.

I had a brief appearance this week on cable TV (Al Jazeera) commenting on a recent poll howing the English are cooking more than they used to, and the French less than used to.  This is not a TV channel I watch a lot at home, but it is lurking there on my Sky box, and perhaps I should tune in more often when looking for either the latest in Middle East news, or food commentary.

I watched “Michelin Madness” on the TV this week and was rather disappointed; it didn’t seem very insightful to me. It was also funny watching the much-heralded secret interview with a Michelin inspector, whose identity was a deathly secret according to the show.  The inspector in the shadows was clearly Derek Bulmer, the head of Michelin UK, and all I can say is that I hope TV shows do a better job of protecting the identity of organised crime informants than they managed with Derek.