Tom Oldroyd trained with the estimable Alastair Little, one of the fathers of modern British cooking in the late 1980s and 1990s, who now runs the Tavola delicatessen in Notting Hill. Much more recently Mr Oldroyd worked at Bocca di Lupo before becoming head chef of the Polpo empire. He went solo in the summer of 2015 with this eponymous restaurant in Islington. It seats up to 40 diners at any one time in a sparsely decorated olive green upstairs dining room with tightly packed tables. The tables and indeed the plates are unusually small, so it feels a bit like a set of the old TV Series “Land of the Giants” as you gaze in wonder at the miniature crockery. There are also a few tables downstairs, but the tables are no larger nor less rammed in. Lighting was murky and gloomy, hence the matching photos, and diners other than any passing birds of prey will probably require a torch just to read the menu. Pleasant blues music played in the background, but not so loudly as to be annoying.
Though he is notionally executive chef, Mr Oldroyd was not around tonight, and nor was his head chef Louis Lingwood, who previously worked at St John Bread and Wine and Quo Vadis. There was a small and carelessly labelled wine list that omitted vintages (and capital letters), as well as being ambiguous in several places: “pinot noir, les st julien burgundy” could refer to any one of the following wines: Julien Bouchard or Gerard Julien & Fils, or Chevillon-Chezaux Les St Julien or Les St Julien Claude Poyen. These incidentally, range in price by a factor of four. It seems to me sloppy and mildly insulting to customers when this happens, as if the management thinks: “our customers are bozos who can barely tell white from red, so we’ll just type up any old thing; also, we can’t be bothered to press the ‘caps’ key.” A “rioja reserve, villabuena” turned out to be Valserrano Reserva 2010 at £45 compared to a retail price of £14. “cremant de loire” was another example – the chef wouldn’t label a dish “some kind of unidentified meat” so why treat wine this way? In total there were just two sparkling wines, five whites, one rose, five reds and two dessert wines. These ranged in price from £24 to £55, with a median price of £32 and an average mark-up of a far from kind 3.8 times retail as best I could tell from the bottles that were unambiguously identified.
Asparagus and Caerphilly croquettas had a crisp outer coating, and the asparagus was not overwhelmed by the cheese; this came with a “truffle mayonnaise” whose relationship to any truffle I am aware of was fleeting and distant at best (13/20 for the frying). Malfatti of spinach and ricotta had pleasant texture, served with broad beans that the kitchen had at least bothered to pod (watch and learn Moro), crispy sage and Berkswell cheese (13/20).
Norfolk asparagus came with brown crab rouille, white crab and chervil. The asparagus was warm, the rest of the elements cold, the crab of decent quality but the chervil tasteless. This was harmless enough though not thrilling (12/20). I may be no spring chicken but I did eat one, the “spring chicken Orvietto” being a dish I recall from Alastair Little days. The bird was served on the bone and perched precariously on its tiny plate, cooked correctly with garlic and white wine though rather lacking flavour. The overall effect was improved by chicken livers on toasted sourdough (from The Bread Factory) with a garish of fennel and black olives, which lifted the flavour of the dish (13/20). On the side, zucchini (courgette) fries were disappointing, piping hot but soggy and tasteless (10/20).
For dessert I had rhubarb and almond tart, which had good pastry though could have had more rhubarb, served with rhubarb ripple ice cream that again was rather light on rhubarb flavour (13/20). Tiramisu was quite good, having a proper coffee kick (14/20). Coffee was from a company called Terrone and was quite good, fairly rich in flavour.
Service was harmless enough, the manager on the night being friendly though our waitress seemed visibly bored and managed to bring the wrong red wine from the vast selection of five on offer, despite my saying the name and pointing to it on the list when she looked confused. The bill came to £58 a head including drinks, which is not excessive. The cooking here is actually quite good, and the place was packed out even at a late sitting, though the décor, wine list and service did not add much to the experience.