WORLD TA­BLES Splash in the pan

Paul Mer­rony’s Lon­don bistro is mak­ing sweet mu­sic, re­ports Su­san Kuro­sawa

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

ONDON’S so-called Tin Pan Al­ley has a new mae­stro. For­mer Syd­ney chef Paul Mer­rony has been gar­ner­ing rave re­views for his Giaconda Din­ing Room, tucked into a tiny space on Den­mark Street near Char­ing Cross Road in the West End.

The restau­rant oc­cu­pies one room, not much big­ger than a front par­lour. There is no or­na­men­ta­tion or wafty mu­sic, the square space is jammed with bare, wooden ta­bles and bent­wood chairs and, at the rear, as a di­vider to the kitchen, is a well-stacked wall of wine. Through the win­dows can be seen busy shops sell­ing all things mu­si­cal, from drum kits to dig­i­tal pi­anos.

It is, in ev­ery sense, a neigh­bour­hood bistro. The orig­i­nal Giaconda Cafe was a mecca for mu­sos in the 1960s; Den­mark Street saw its share of up-and-com­ers in the age of long, lank hair, in­clud­ing the Stones and David Bowie.

The £1 ($2) cover charge gives you a litre carafe of fizzy min­eral wa­ter, sliced crusty bread and a lit­tle dish of oil-slicked olives; our carafe is filled fre­quently, without us ask­ing. What a fab idea and one that sums up the prac­ti­cal ap­proach of a chef with an eye to re­ces­sion din­ing.

The restau­rant has made Miche­lin’s 2009 Bib Gour­mand list of good food at moderate prices’’ and from what I saw (and spent) on this Lon­don visit, Giaconda could well be the cap­i­tal’s best-priced bistro. Mer­rony doesn’t even levy a ser­vice charge: put that in your gobs and chew it over, Ram­say and co.

In such pared-back sur­round­ings, you’d ex­pect Mer­rony’s food to be hon­est and free of frills, and so it is. He has been quoted as say­ing his gal­ley kitchen at Giaconda is one of Lon­don’s small­est; the op­er­at­ing bud­get here is all about what you get on the plate.

There are a dozen en­trees, the same num­ber of mains and just two sides: chips (£2.75) and green salad (£2.50). Fans of Mer­rony from the days of his epony­mous Syd­ney restau­rant will be pleased to see his gelati­nous cake of bone­less (or al­most, as con­fided on the menu) and crisped pig’s trot­ters (£7) on the en­tree line-up, while if you want some­thing of the nos­tal­gic Sun­day nurs­ery tea ilk, there’s roast mush­rooms with gar­lic and herbs (£5.50), fish­cakes with tartare sauce and green salad (£10.50) or a com­fort­ing pud of pear and ap­ple crum­ble (£5.50).

If this makes the food sound plain as pen­nies, then the test is in Mer­rony’s fi­nesse. Trained un­der the Roux broth­ers in Bri­tain and at La Tour d’Ar­gent in Paris, his is a clas­si­cal French ap­proach. But with steak tartare and grill of the day on the menu, it’s also the no-non­sense food of the routiers, those lorry driver pit stops speck­led through pro­vin­cial France. Just try

Chef Paul Mer­rony, left; beet­root and leeks vinai­grette with goat’s cheese mousse and herb salad, above giv­ing a cam­mioneur a stale pate or an over­done biftek and see where that leads you.

Our party of three fol­lows sim­i­lar tastes, al­though we do our share of sam­pling across the ta­ble. Beet­root and leeks vinai­grette with goat’s cheese mousse and herb salad (£6.50) is the hit of the en­trees, the dress­ing all fresh and zingy against the earthy coun­ter­point of just-cooked beets, springy cheese and sprigs of mint.

As my en­tree served as a main, saf­fron risotto (£6) is full of sunny flavours creamed (I sus­pect) with mas­car­pone. Mer­rony’s vitello ton­nato (£12.50) is ar­guably as per­fect a ren­der­ing of this Ital­ian cold clas­sic as one could find. The thinly sliced veal is per­fectly pink and served with boiled pota­toes and eggs, shaved radic­chio and pert lit­tle cor­ni­chons.

Ham hock hash (£10.75) comes crumbed with a smoth­er­ing fried egg on top and lightly dressed green salad on the side. It’s quite salty (Mer­rony is as unashamedly un­afraid of the salt cel­lar as he is of but­ter and goose fat) and mush­ing the soft egg into the hash makes for a de­li­cious mess with the feel of a board­ing-school sup­per or Sun­day break­fast. But make that an English pub­lic school with faint re­gard for stu­dents’ daily al­lowances of green veg.

If there is a neg­a­tive to Giaconda’s fare, it is to be wary of Mer­rony’s fond­ness for eggs and to choose ac­cord­ingly; to fol­low the pig’s trot­ters, which are served on a bed of eggy, mus­tard-kicked may­on­naise, with the egg­part­nered vitello ton­nato ad­mit­tedly was the wrong op­tion for one of our party.

We share a pud­ding of iced nougat with rasp­ber­ries (£6); the nutty, densely packed nougat comes as a cylin­der on a moat of this most sum­mery of fruit and there’s a slight bit­ter-or­ange twist to pro­ceed­ings, which works splen­didly.

Four en­trees and three mains, one shared dessert and three glasses of wine costs £74. The place is boom­ing and its lo­ca­tion in a daggy street (lower rents, one pre­sumes) is no draw­back as it’s per­fectly placed for pre-the­atre din­ing (Giaconda opens at 6pm). No won­der Mer­rony is play­ing to full houses. This is the first in an oc­ca­sional se­ries of in­ter­na­tional restau­rant re­views by the award-winning Travel&In­dul­gence team.

Check­list

The Giaconda Din­ing Room, 9 Den­mark St, Lon­don WC2H 8LS. Phone +44 20 7240 3334; www.gi­a­con­da­din­ing.com. Open: Lunch and din­ner, Mon­day to Fri­day; last or­ders at 2pm and 9.15pm. Cost: About £60 for two. Drink: Glasses of Ital­ian whites and reds from £3.75. Bot­tles have small mark-ups; an ex­cel­lent Mon­tepul­ciano d’Abruzzo Frentano is £22. Rea­son to re­turn: To check if Mer­rony has had to raise his prices.

No frills:

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