Myrtle Restaurant in Chelsea
ANNA HAUGH, the chef-patron at Myrtle in Chelsea, popped out of the kitchen to bring us a tiny inter-course dish of chicken mousse and pea purée. Her soft, lyrical Irish accent brought back two memories. One wonderful, one painful. As to the latter: ‘Don’t you remember we met on Pointless?’ she said. In fact I had no recollection at all of this. Nothing. Just a blank. You see, I was first up with fellow critic Grace Dent on the TV quiz show, presented by Alexander Armstrong. And asked to name a major potato-producing country, I ingeniously said New Zealand, as I thought – correctly as it turned out – that no one else would think of that answer. Indeed no one did, as it’s an incorrect answer, and so we were out in the first round. As you’ll understand, I immediately forgot about this, though my children, friends and Anna Haugh keep attempting to remind me.
But her voice also brought back many trips to Ireland. The first was some 25 years ago, when the food was very unmyrtle – that is to say, very much not what Anna provides, which is posh Irish.
I first went to Ireland in my early 20s because of a man called Peter Oborne. Peter is a brilliant writer and commentator on politics, and also an occasional historian of cricket. I met him while I was working for an MP. ‘Do you play cricket, Sitters?’ he asked, deciding for himself on this nickname. ‘Not really,’ I replied. ‘Perfect,’ he said.
A few weeks later I was with him and his team of White City All Stars. Over
seven days we played teams from Dublin down to Cork, groups of farmers, lawyers, soldiers and anyone else with access to a ground and a pavilion. I returned with the team for many years after and a pattern emerged. We were mercilessly slaughtered, and if we were ever on the verge of victory, Peter managed to snatch defeat by bringing on a terrible bowler, having a massive row with a fielder or changing the batting order. We drank excessive amounts of Guinness, ate sensational teas and, unless asked to a barbecue by an opposing team member, consumed some of the most revolting food known to man.
As I ate a dish of salmon in Myrtle, I recalled the square pieces of fried fish we once bought in a small town. It was more deep-fried cardboard than fish. So we tended to stick to the Guinness and match teas, stuffing ourselves with cakes, sandwiches and sausage rolls. Another reason we would lose…
But gradually, as the years progressed, the food improved. Today, the food of Ireland seems transformed. Many have headed to the Ballymaloe Cookery School near Cork, and indeed this week’s restaurant is named after Myrtle Allen, who laid the groundwork for that institution. Her name represents the birth of modern Irish cooking and Haugh’s restaurant acts like a fixed and constant trade stand, a beacon that offers a glimpse into what is today happening in the land of her birth.
Haugh’s salmon – albeit looking suspiciously like it had been blow-torched (the menu says roasted, which makes me think of ovens rather than sous vide and a flame) – was wonderfully simple and delicate, and almost melted into the crushed potatoes. It was a very finely judged and balanced plate with some watercress adding a peppery note, and a creamy sauce adding further juice and flavour.
The salmon was preceded by a thin length of black pudding wrapped in crisped potato. This was a miraculous little plate. God knows how you wrap a slice of potato around black pudding but the result is a fabulous juxtaposition of rustic flavour and fine-dining presentation; like a soot-covered miner doing a pirouette.
All this goes on in a tiny little restaurant with some 40 covers. Staff and customers squeeze past each other en route to the loo or kitchen. And if you walk past the kitchen yourself you might hear Anna shouting, ‘Service… thank you sweetheart.’ (I’ve heard worse language near stoves.) The design of the restaurant rather matches the plates: soft, delicate, modest and welcoming, and the tables feature specially designed silver water goblets (try to get a seat downstairs, the upstairs has less soul).
An excellent manager safely steered us towards a wonderfully dry and aromatic Austrian sauvignon blanc from Weingut Erich & Walter Polz. It was a perfect example of how sauvignon blanc can be subtle and fragrant – the opposite of a blowsy and obvious New Zealand number.
Myrtle reminded me of the best of Ireland. I think happily of the amazing ladies who served those match teas and nursed our sporting and off-the-pitch injuries. Hospitable, cheery, upbeat and forgiving.
And, I discovered, it’s the best place to be when it’s raining.
It is a juxtaposition of rustic flavour and fine dining; like a sootcovered miner doing a pirouette
Above Potato-wrapped Clonakilty black pudding. Below Roasted salmon with watercress and crushed potatoes