Daylight snobbery

THE BLYTHE ROAD RESTAURANT; 71 Blythe Road, Brook Green, London W14 0HP. Tel: 0171 371 3635. Open Monday to Saturday 7pm to 10.30pm (opening for lunch from autumn). Average price per person, pounds 18 (without drinks). Credit cards accepted
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The Independent Culture
Hearing that a former Masterchef finalist had opened his own restaurant, a cynic might imagine a nightmarish menu, embracing the worst excesses of the striving-to-be-noticed school of amateur cookery that many (well, the cynics, anyway) regard as the staple fare of BBC1's long-running cookery contest. You know the kind of thing: a sonata of timbales served on a futon of synchronised mousselines, garnished with a rapunzel of panache quenelles.

But a little fairer than this armchair exercise in food snobbery would be to visit the restaurant in question. That it is to be found in Blythe Road, at the heart of a cluster of cross streets of pretty two-storey terraces (whose inhabitants avoid the di-lemma of affiliation with either Shepherd's Bush on the north or Hammersmith to the south, by saying that they live in "Blythe Village") adds an extra note of interest for me. I used to live there.

It's called simply The Blythe Road Restaurant and chef/patron Robert Ash deserves praise for resisting some obvious alternatives, such as Blythe Spirit, or Chez Blythe (though such punning may have amused my former neighbours; they were funny - or rather not funny - like that).

Over two floors, street level and below, the clean woody interior, and yellow sponged (or is it ragged?) walls brings a note of bygone urban chic to what nevertheless feels more like a neighbourhood eaterie than a destination restaurant. The four of us (myself, Marie, and two French friends, Christophe and Estelle) sat at street level, looking through the glass-panel wall which, on sunnier evenings, opens out to tables on the pavement.

And what of the menu? Well, there's certainly one dish for the snob to sneer at: a spinach and smoked salmon roulade. (If you don't know why this is sneer-fodder, you're neither a food snob, nor someone - like me - who has the knowledge to be one, but also the basic decency and open- minded sympathy to all forms of culinary endeavour to desist from such snobbery. But if you're neither of these things, I should explain that roulades, especially of spinach and smoked salmon, are un-believably Eighties: suburban, passe and naff. Or at least that's what a food snob would tell you.)

I was actually quite tempted by the roulade. On the several occasions when I have been served it, at dinner parties in the Eighties, I remember rather enjoying it. However, Nineties sensibilities (not to say snobbery) got the better of me, and I went for something more up to the minute: rocket salad with chorizo, Parmesan and truffle oil. This came with a mildly subversive twist: the chorizo had been shredded into fine strips. After a couple of mouthfuls I decided I didn't mind this; it was the finely grated Parmesan that spoiled the dish. It would have worked had it been presented as shavings, or little chunks. On hot pasta, where the cheese melts, powdery Parmesan is okay. But on leafy salads it's irritating: something you inhale, rather than taste.

Christophe and Estelle both opted for another Eighties favourite (though too classic ever to be naff), the tricolore salad of avocado, tomato and mozzarella. I gently hinted that they might consider something more unusual, but in the end we agreed it would be interesting to find out if the chef had any twist on this familiar standard or, at the very least, a top-notch dressing, and some properly sun-kissed tomatoes. But neither of these, nor any other redeeming feature, arrived to lift the dish above the humdrum.

Only Marie was content with her starter, a pleasing alliance (if not quite a marriage made in heaven) of smoked mackerel with roast beetroot, and a decent dressing made with creme fraiche, stained purple by the juices from the root.

Main courses produced more persuasive evidence of talent in the kitchen, but were marred by further lapses of judgement. Christophe's roast rump of lamb with potato dauphinoise and a port and juniper sauce was near unfaultable - pink meat, perky sauce, creamy, garlicky spuds. Estelle's salmon fishcakes were well put together, with proper flakes of salmon mixed with nice creamy mash, but woefully underseasoned, as was the sauce that accompanied them (it boasted of spinach and fennel but, beyond the odd speck of green, there wasn't much evidence of either).

The dish chosen by both Marie and myself, "pork fillet wrapped in pancetta with herb polenta, roasted peppers and aubergines," encapsulated the hit- and-miss nature of Ash's cooking. Also on the plate was an unadvertised mound of red cabbage, cooked not with the customary apple but with little pieces of dried fig, and no doubt a slosh of vinegar. It was an inspired combination, just the right sweet-and-sour note to accompany the nicely tender pork fillet with it's salty pancetta jacket. But it missed completely with the redundant pile of grilled vegetables and the polenta wasn't much help either. The pork, cabbage and a dollop of creamy mash would have done fine.

Puddings, a choice of un-mucked-about-with classics, were steadier. A strawberry millefeuille, a creme brulee and a lemon tart all went down well, without provoking exceptional pleasure.

So why does a chef who is clearly capable of good judgement and pleasing combinations also have such lapses of, well, taste? Would it be snobbish to say that he's suffering from a touch of Masterchefitis? Probably. But all I really mean is that he's never, or not often enough, in his cooking career, been put in the character-building situation of trying to please a very demanding boss. I may be wrong, but I suspect that Robert Ash has gone straight from cooking for highly appreciative, no doubt polite (and very lucky) friends, via much publicised success in an amateur competition, to running his own kitchen brigade. What's lacking is a high level of self-criticism. If he can find it, I've no doubt that his enterprise will flourish, I sincerely hope he can, and it does.