WORLD TABLES Splash in the pan
Paul Merrony’s London bistro is making sweet music, reports Susan Kurosawa
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.
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.