There are times when I enter a restaurant and am truly surprised. Today was such a day. The squirrels on the walls had nothing to do with it.
Me and monster photographer Paul (no, he doesn't photograph monsters, although that would be awesome, he is "just" a damn good crafter of extraordinary images) wanted to go out for yet another of our stupidly long lunches and in an unusual fit of ear to the ground timeliness we set our sights for the newly opened Riding House Café on Great Titchfield Street.
Having heard good things banded about Twitter, but not really had time to look into it in detail, thus somehow completely unaware that Riding House Café is the third venture by the people behind one of my favourite London pubs The Garrison I had no expectations what so ever.
Upon arriving I found myself denied entry as the door wouldn't budge. Being my usual slightly confused self, I tried to cajole the door to behave in the expected manner by pulling the handle harder, which had no effect other than the girl at the reception desk taking pity on me and with a warm smile walk over and open the door next to the one I was having a silent argument with.
Owing to a slight embarrassment over my door manipulation #fail I didn't really take in much of the restaurant until I had handed my coat and bag over to said girl, but as I turned around and spotted Paul and Rachel (McCormack) by the bar I knew I had found one of those rare restaurants I take a deep and instant shine to. See, I am simple like that. Plonk me down on a comfortable and aestethically pleasing chair in a room where the attention to detail is so striking that it makes the room look like it has been there forever and my spirits soar.
With my favourite cafe and Swedish treat shop Scandinavian Kitchen down the road I've walked past the restaurant that used to be here before many times. With a name like Chutney & Lager it completely failed to attract my attention. Little did I expect this incredible make over, especially from a place with the word "Café" in the name. This place is so much more than that. As I walked over to join my lunch company at the bar I silently hoped that the food and service (from the very smart looking staff) would live up to the promise of the interior.
With Rachel in the house, proud part of the #westbromptonsherrymassive as she is, a glass of dry fino is the only suitable start to a cheeky lunch. There are only two sherries on the menu, one dry and one sweet, yet disaster managed to strike the bar staff as the glasses delivered contained not a light appetite inducing aperitif, but sticky, deeply dark and sweet Pedro Ximenez.
The error was pointed out, the server apologised profusely and then that most amazing and statistically highly unlikely event of lightning striking the same spot twice occurred as we were told the fino was lukewarm. Oh the horror! Me being a bone headed brute of the "I may not know much about food and drink, but I know what I like" variety would never have noticed but Rachel and courteous General Manager Nick Levantis who delivered the bad news were very much in agreement that the sherry would have to wait until it was chilled and would we please accept something else as an aperitif while the sherry achieved greatness? Of course we would. Negronis of perfect Orson Wellian balance ("The bitters are good for your liver, the gin is bad, they balance each other.") were produced and consumed with delight.
Interior, check. Service, check. I love a graceful recovery.
Deciding it was time to check out the food we moved from the bar area to the dining room. I could write at length about how the furnishings are in keeping with the New York-inspired bar area, or how the comfortable chairs and inviting sofas with splashes of orange make the room feel really warm and welcoming but I won't. There are squirrels.
Wasn't me who noticed them, I was busy admiring the ancient camera lens-like ceiling lamps and scoping out the very appealing menu (my head nodding up and down from ceiling to table trying to take it all in at once). Rachel however stopped talking mid sentence and just pointed to the wall mounted lamps. Yup, definitely squirrels frozen in time while scurrying up the wall trying to hide in the lamp shades. Clearly someone behind the scenes has a thing for taxidermy as I recall stuffed animals being a feature also at The Garrison.
Animal wall features couldn't keep us distracted from the Riding House Café menu very long though. On the menu you'll find instead of starters an interesting sounding selection of small dishes ranging in price from three to five pounds. I would happily come here and simply go through most of these while chatting away with friends. Mains are priced between £10 and £15, so not bank breaking. They also serve Chateubriand, which I really would like to come here and try. Among the side dishes is my current favourite way ofserving broccoli, with a helping of anchovy. Yum.
Among the small dishes we ordered (poussin, salt cod fritters, sea bass ceviche, squid) the squid (pictured at the top of this post) was my favourite. Lots of flavour, squid silky smooth and chorizo providing a slightly chewy bite. The ceviche was a bit of a let down, I expected something really exciting to happen in the meeting of sea bass, lime, chilli and my tongue but no joy beyond a nice texture.
Ordered the guinea fowl on Rachel's suggestion, mainly to try the romesco sauce, and while she wouldn't necessarily label it "romesco" it certainly didn't fail to satisfy. Very tasty. Any decently prepared dish with blackpudding in it works for me and the romesco sauce provided a nice freshness to go with it.
Then came the rack of pork with smoked sausage and lentils and if I wasn't convinced before that there would be an additional "check" on my mental scorecard next to the line "food satisfying taste buds as well as eyes" this pushed me over the edge. Delicious.
Rack of pork with horseradish, on a bed of lentils and smoked sausage... Right up my street.
Originally uploaded by Paul WF.
For desserts we had the Sundae (sweet tooth Paul very much approved), the Spiced Gingerbead (liked it, but would have loved it with a bit more of a ginger kick) and the Créme Caramel. Seriously, that Créme Caramel deserves a blog post of its own. Creamy, exquisite vanilla, when I go next time I will order two. That said, we were told that the Red Plum & Pear Crumble is a winner, so I will have to make sure my dinner companion orders that...
Créme Caramel with hazelnut biscotti, worth coming here just for this dessert alone!
Originally uploaded by Paul WF.
Thoroughly enjoyed my visit, made all the better by the great company, and I already suspect that Riding House Café will take up a position next to Hawksmoor Seven Dials, The Garrison and Polpetto as a place I will regularly come back to.