Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Better than a Bistro

I was going to start this post by talking about Chiswick and it's well known foodie credentials (Franco Manca, Hedone) which would have been boring. Thank god then for a rather obnoxious conversation I had about Charlotte's Bistro with a much-more-important-than-me food writer. When I mentioned that I’d been and loved it, he/she (I wouldn't want to be a tell tale) pursed their cynical lips and said rather acidly "it was just alright," As if being 'alright' was the most repugnant thing in the culinary cosmos.

Because I respect this person's writing and because I am generally willing to consider another's opinion no matter how it's wielded, I've revisited the meal in my mind a few times over the past couple of weeks.

The decor was pleasant in a neighbourhood restaurant kind of way, with a blond and glass-panelled front that opens onto the street (perfect for those, like me, who want to sneak out for a well-timed cigarette when sitting at the bar). As ever, I was more interested in the cocktails than the light fixtures, which were excellent – particularly a classic summer cooler of cucumber, gin and elderflower.

Despite the fact we were about to embark on four courses, our attention was diverted by the lovingly described bar snacks. Explaining why we were stuffing thin-sliced crisps of Jerusalem artichoke with curried salt in our gobs faster than you could say ‘your table is ready’.

On arrival to the lofty dining room, we were met by a three parts cheerful, charming and camp waiter (my favourite kind), bread-still-hot-from-the-oven and creamy yellow butter - an excellent start.

Though perkily arranged, my barbequed ox tongue starter did not win the prettiest starter award (that went to an alarmingly beautiful plate of violet artichokes, semi dry tomatoes and deep fried burrata), but it was generally agreed that it won on sex appeal. The soft, charred flesh sat on a bed of peppery fennel, punctuated by glistening blobs of yazu and soy.

Other members of our dining quartet sang the praises of a warm potato fondant with goats cheese and Kent asparagus; and the Cornish crab bon bon with mango gazpacho and avocado. I managed to wangle a forkful of both and duly concur their lack of being ‘alright’. 

I went against my instincts on the main (never a good idea) and spent the next 30 minutes starting resentfully at a stunning piece of Iberico pork tenderloin. Not that there was anything wrong with my rump of lamb with toasted quinoa and dry feta (one shouldn’t quibble over a genuinely pleasing arrangement of classic flavours), it just didn’t have a crumb of dehydrated pig surrounding it. Thank god my dining companion was willing to swap plates half way so I can tell you just how porky that pork tasted (and how I would go back for that dish alone).  

Another non-‘average’ dish was the cod with pigs cheek - a timeless but nonetheless clever quirk of the kitchen; as was the poached silver mullet with fennel, kohlrabi and samphire. 

Expectations on my pudding were high, having caused much pain in choosing (the sweet end of the menu read like a sugar-laden lullaby). Almalfi lemon curd, lavender meringue, shortbread and raspberry sorbet sprinted ahead in the style stakes. It really was pretty as a picture, though my picture hardly does it justice (the sun had gone down and I was two cocktails and half a bottle of wine down by this point). 

The buttermilk panna cotta arched proudly from a carpet of sun-dried strawberries and wibbled effortlessly into everyone’s good book.

The praline and caramel chocolate pot with tonka bean milk sorbet fooled us all into thinking it was simple when it was anything but.   

Full marks go to me though, for ordering the most-wicked and smile-inducing pudding of the evening (why thank you). I only picked the warm almond and cherry tartlet because it had salt caramel on the top. One bite and I realised that being an idiot simpleton had done me proud. The case of feathercrisp pastry baked blind then filled with a base of almond ‘cake’ (the chef used a word other than cake but I forget), then topped with a cherry ‘jam’ (ditto jam), vanilla parfait and finally the salt caramel.

It reminded me of the first time I ever tasted a home-baked jam tart – and the feeling of pure amazement that some ingredients, a crafty pair of hands and an oven could produce something of such wonder.

Taking my mind back over the meal via the medium of putting-words-to-page has only served to reiterate what a bloody good meal we had at Charlotte’s Bistro. Better than good in some cases, with some dishes up there with favourite things I’ve ever put in my mouth. The clincher… three courses cost a mere £29.95, which, for the quality of cooking, is asylum cheap.

Dear Mr Much-more-important-than-me-food-writer, I couldn’t agree with you more. Charlotte’s Bistro is a bit of alright.

Charlotte’s Bistro
6 Turnham Green Terrace
W4 1QP

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