A massive mashup of moreish morsels
167 Junction Road, London N19 5PZ 0207 281 5684;
delparc.com No set price, but roughly £30-35 per head (with wine
or beer, about £45)
All restaurants are unique, but some are more unique than others, as George Orwell almost put it in Animal Farm; and very few in my career have been uniquer than Del Parc. By the way, before anyone thinks of complaining that (a) every Pizza Express is identical to all the others; and/or (b) with uniqueness, as with pregnancy, there can be no degrees, remember that this is the last page to which the sane turn in the search for writing that makes one whit of sense.
One aspect of this charming north London joint that makes it so sui generis, to lurch into the argot of the courtroom, is that it seems to occupy different points in time. On one level, it feels peculiarly old. Wispy sheets draped over poles hint at a Bedouin tent and the timeless scent of the Tuareg camp fire, while the dramatic visage of chef Steve Morrish – a bearded colossus on view in the kitchen opposite a giant wood carving of Buddha – appears to have been purloined from an Inca deity.
On another level, in both culinary and social historic terms, it is absolutely of the present. Morrish and Alan McNally, who runs the front of house, are partners in life as well as commerce (I forgot to ask if they have wed), while the melding of Spanish tapas with North African dishes could scarcely be more zeitgeisty.
On a third level, Del Parc feels faintly futuristic. While its refusal to bother with a menu (nothing is printed or on blackboards) is hardly new, it is a novelty that the dishes keep coming until you can either eat no more, or are too embarrassed to admit that you could. A hunch tells me that this “Jewish mother” approach will catch on and become a trend, though it will not be to all tastes. To “Do you have any allergies?” – the ritual inquiry demanded by the lack of any choice – my own Jewish mother would reply, “Yes, I’m allergic to not having a menu,” and demand an amusebouche of adrenalin lest she go into anaphylactic shock. But many of us like being spared the agony of indecision, not to mention the enforced intimacy that comes from the sharing of food.
And what enchanting, vibrant food it is that Morrish prepares – and with such bewildering serenity, given the sort of broiling heat that would turn a Zen master into a serial killer, in his minuscule glass-fronted pen. After quail eggs served with cumin, smoked paprika and sesame seeds, there arrived a Manchegoflavoured tortilla of amazing fluffiness. Next up came a lavish serving of gorgeous chorizo and salsichon with olives and capers; a plate of mushrooms with baby onions caramelised in rich, treacly Pedro Ximenez sherry; artichoke hearts and butter beans with garlic and herbs; pancettawrapped dates filled with a Spanish blue cheese (Treviso); and a salad of green, yellow and red tomatoes (all tasting of tomato in breach of the Restaurateur’s Code, section nine, subsection three), with a sweet basil relish.
It was already clear from more than the straddling of time zones that this is a Tardis restaurant. The quality of the cooking and such flourishes as exquisitely delicate cutlery established that, in terms of ambition, it is infinitely bigger on the inside than the room’s weeniness would suggest to anyone glancing in from the outside. The cooking then zigzagged through space, from Spain to North Africa and back again, for the main courses. Savoury Moroccan lamb sweetbreads yielded to a spinach salad with pine nuts with garlic croutons, before we nipped back across the Strait of Gibraltar for sweet and smoky doublemarinated loin of Spanish pork with chargrilled piquillo peppers in romesco sauce. “Have you had enough?” asked McNally. We were by no means sated with the cooking of Morrish, who must be the most significant chefly boost to the theory of nominative determinism (the idea that names guide destinies) in Britain. We wanted more, and it came in the guise of gently spiced, herby and sensational Moroccan chicken with pomegranate seeds. Ordinarily, I would have gone on and on but, dissatisfied with its terms and conditions, my tapeworm is working to rule. We ended with homemade ice cream (vanilla, pomegranate and almond) and chocolates.
My solitary reservation about feverishly recommending Del Parc is the small chance of encountering Alastair Campbell, who lives nearby, while the evening’s only moan concerned the music. “It’s bit belly dancery, and not so good tonight,” said one regular. “Oh, God, is that Madonna?” It was, with La Isla Bonita. But there was no faulting the cooking, service or warmth of a room that transcends the limitations of its spatial dimensions, and radiates the rosy glow found only in labour-oflove neighbourhood restaurants which treat their punters not as sheep to be fleeced but as cherished friends. “I’ve never been anywhere as idiosyncratic and personal,” said one of those ultra-loyalists as we lingered over the dregs of a decent house Rioja and coffee. “Apart from the people and the food, what I love is that it’s not following any kind of trend.” It isn’t, but in an ideal world it would certainly start one.