Friday, 10 June 2011

The Riding House Café

Eyes rolled skywards for yet another bandwagon review beckons.

The phenomenon of ‘small plates’ has taken London by storm and for that matter the rest of the country have progressively followed suit. I do accept that the times have moved on but through upbringing and tradition the English reluctance to sharing (as opposed to apportioning) platters of food on a dinner table remains indelibly ingrained. The ‘small plates’ situation can be a dilemma; with certain circles it can be deemed rude, insensible, unhealthy and lamentably un-English.

When I was a young squid boarding at a Sussex prep school my good chum Jamie decided that we should lunch together with his parents. It was one of those 3 hour Saturday breaks when the boys were on a brief parole to stock up their stash of banned confectioneries (Mars Bars were then the school’s de facto currency) and persistently threatened their parents by declaring; ‘I’m going to run away from school if you don’t pull me out now!’ So to a Chinese restaurant we headed to in Brighton and that was my first experience of how not to share your grub for we’re in England now! We all ordered our choice of dishes (plus individual servings of special fried rice) - Sir John had sweet and sour pork, Jamie likewise (more tinned pineapple chunks than hog bits I recalled), Lady E ate very little of her lemon chicken and me, a plate of greens (possibly kale)! ‘Oh, aren’t we supposed to share the dishes?’ I inquired and Sir John in his usual diplomatic affectation, interjected, ‘not here in England we do my dear boy’. I’d obviously misunderstood the ‘prim and proper’ procedure to ordering food in the Home Counties (twas the late 70s) and began to accept the fact that the lazy Susan in the middle of the table was purely there to glorify the humble pot of jasmine tea. The E family struggled tediously with their lunch using chopsticks whereas I was done and dealt with in no time (30 mins ahead of them using alternative forms of utensils). Lady E muttered, ‘but I thought the Chinese only ate with chopsticks and I replied gainfully, ‘Oh they do but I’m a Malaysian as well, we’re equally compliant with a fork and spoon’. That was my first and last outing with Jamie’s MaMa and PaPa. I learnt my ways, the English are not prone to direct communal sharing, imagine digging into a huge baking dish of Shepherd's Pie as a centrepiece on a table, no it wouldn’t work…instead it would need to be appropriately apportioned in a well-mannered and trusted way!

Earlier last month Farmer LBB (tripled-barrelled named cheddar producer), Jamie (slapheaded by now but reverentially titled as most aristos end up) and I dined at the Pollen Street Social (don’t dismay for I shall refrain from posting a review). We ordered around ten small plates between us and that was when the meal started to spiral down. Like how were we meant to divide up the lone egg in the ‘Full English Breakfast’ or the tiny quail escabeche and not to mention the squid and cauliflower risotto (too insubstantial and impossible to partake in jointly)! I found Jason Atherton’s place over-praised, over-priced and totally average but more to the point, the English are of course blameless when it comes to not being consistently partial to grabbing food from the same plate (how about fondue one may ask, sod that, ‘tis a gimmick). Small plates only work for Dim Sum and real Spanish tapas. The only advantage when that dreaded term is applied to other types of European fayre, it favours only the critics and bloggers- they can order as many dishes as they wish in one sitting and pen about the food en masse thereafter.

George and I came here on the last day of The Riding House Café’s soft opening launch i.e. 50% of all grub. I do accept that it can be disputative when writing up about a new place in its infancy, but a restaurant business (cut-throat and all) is hardly a newborn baby, a bedding-in period would’ve been a lame excuse. If a restaurant can’t deliver the goods first time around and go belly up then the tears are wholly unjustified because Bob the uncle anticipated the failings and decamped.

The Riding House Café is an all-day dining brasserie. Despite having an eponymous name as the street where John Nash’s eye-catching All Souls Church proudly sits at the western end, the collective views from the large dining space are restricted to the loveless forlornness of Great Titchfield Street. That said the dining space looked properly invested and unduly accented. The service when we were there was faultless and genuinely warm.

It was the day before I had to start work at 08.00 hours and the evening after polishing off a bottle and half of MdD Gassac the night before. The Bloody Mary facilitated that much-needed remedy.

Like all spawn of the ilk to emerge in London, small plates were unavoidable at The Riding House Café-

First came the salt cod fritters with red pepper aioli.

The bacalhau was obviously skimped and saved here because I couldn’t taste any of it. Perhaps it was a Sunday evening, a time when standards often lapse.

Posh-sounding Nocellara del Belice olives
They were bulbous and very good.

Moorish lamb with smoked aubergine

Moorish to me means cumin, fennel seeds or paprika but in the case of the above they were either obliterated during the cooking process or omitted. Additionally the lamb was under salted but granted, it was done perfectly medium. Unfortunately it was neither Moorish nor moreish. Perhaps it was a Sunday evening; a time when standards often lapse.

Sea bass ceviche, lime and chilli
The fish was somewhat over-cured in an ‘all too tame’ marinade. It lacked any astringency or chilli kick. Unmemorable and perhaps it was a Sunday evening; a time when standards often lapse.

Artichoke dip and crostini

My beef wasn’t so much about the pasty artichoke quagmire but the so-called ‘little toasts’. The crostini were inedible due to their construction site relevance, they were hard as hard hats. Jean Christophe Novelli summed it fittingly - "The French don't eat toast. We don't need to, we make decent bread. Toasting bread is sacrilege - it's like cutting spaghetti."

Slow roasted pork belly with cumin salt

Token saving grace; good meat and excellent crackling. Perhaps Sunday evenings in spite of their downs may have their ups as well.

Guinea fowl with black pudding and Romesco sauce.
The bird was tender enough but the black pudding went AWOL. It was unadventurous and ho-hum. The Sunday evening syndrome struck yet again!

Heritage tomatoes, basil and capers.
We were momentously ripped off here, the tomatoes were hardly heritage and the basil morphed into rocket leaves. An authentic heritage tomato salad can be found here instead. Poor. The song remains the same on Sunday evenings…

The 25 quid 10oz rib eye on the bone served with béarnaise sauce.
Bear in mind you poor souls, chips are extra!

Imposing, bullish and well charred…

…and textbook medium rare as requested. But through no fault of the kitchen the steak was under- hung and woefully short on flavour. My terse message to the owners of this place, ‘How very dare you!’

Hot fudge sundae
A laudable consolation after the mishaps of the small plates and disjointed mains.

Dinner at The Riding House Café proved average at best, I’ll only come back here if someone else pick up the tab. But it was admittedly more down to earth and less overbearing than Pollen Street Social. However there are two places worth going to on Great Titchfield Street- here and here. Life is too short for small plate of dishes that are so obtrusively mediocre that it would be purposeless to even suggest let’s share.

43-51 Great Titchfield Street
London W1W 7PQ


Helena said...

This is a very funny review I did enjoy it. That'll teach you to eat out on a Sunday night, when you should be eating the remains of your roast dinner in front of re-runs of Dr Who.

Anonymous said...

Love the image of the "young squid" and his plate of greens!

Anonymous said...

How about Sergio's just down the road? Large portions and wonderful food. I was there last week for dinner and have rarely had such a great meal with such service for a very reasonable price. I did however recently try out riding house cafe and as you mentioned, I was severly dissapointed with the food and the value for money!

Kavey said...

I like small plates not because it gives me more to blog about but because it lets me taste more things. I've always loved sharing and would always choose 10 tiny plates (of great food) over 2 or 3 regular courses (of equally great food).

These small plates don't set me on fire though! Not that it was on my list of places to visit anyway!

The heritage tomato salad in particular is shocking, looks like supermarket baby plums and a regular tomato sliced. Heritage, my arse!

bellaphon said...

Helena- Hi, thank you for stopping. I’m glad there was a funny element about the post but I never intended to any of that, just tried and tested cumbersomeness that’s typical of my usual style. As for Dr Who I stopped following when Tom Baker left and these days I’m too much of a cantankerous old fart to appreciate the likes of Messrs Tennant or Smith.

Kake- Squids were also referred to as ‘underschools’, a caste below Huxley’s Epsilons!

Anon- Thank you for your comments. I wished you‘d left us a real name instead because if I ever go to Sergio’s and should they fail on the spaghetti alle vongole I shall hold you personally responsible and will be down on you like a ton of bricks!

Kavey- Hey K, I’m grateful for your comments and accept your point of view but I still stand by mine. It’s horridly challenging to divvy up portions of small plates like say goats curd or steak tartare to a party of three or more diners simultaneously. An inevitable case of you win some and loose some when it comes to sampling the food. One or more persons (still hungry, bless em) from the grazing party will always end up resorting to a bowl of cereal when they reach home or grab a kebab from a local joint.

The tomato fiasco was sadly a Trade Descriptions Act violation as well.

Gordon White said...

Just around the corner from work... Note to self. Avoid.

Kaffeine I make it too all the time, however. (You can take the boy out of the Antipodes...)

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