New inhabitants of the Ark

NOVELLI W8; 122-124 Palace Gardens Terrace, London W8 4RT. Tel: 0171 229 4024. Open for lunch Mon-Fri 12-3pm and for dinner Mon-Thur 6-11pm and Fri-Sat 6pm- 12am. Set three-course lunch, pounds 13.95. Average price for dinner, pounds 30 per head. Credit cards accepted
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The Independent Culture
Very Few Londoners know where Notting Hill Gate's Palace Gardens Terrace is, or rather they won't know its name, even though they will probably have swung round its upper reaches countless times. It is home to what has, for some 30 years, been one of London's small gastronomic institutions, the Ark. Long and narrow, tres, tres French, and serving good, filling Gallic fare at affordable prices, it was, in its time, a treasured rarity. The Ark was even, I am told, on the list of places aspiring black cab drivers had to be able to locate when they were doing the Knowledge. But the Ark has gone, and in its place is the spanking new, up-to-date Novelli W8, number two in the star chef Jean-Christophe Novelli's recently founded empire. Not one to tangle with fast-talking cabbies, however, M Novelli has ensured that the name of the Ark is still inscribed on the exterior.

The first thing you notice, once you've breached the giddy profusion of flowers that cushions the entrance, is the colour of the walls - an intense purple blue. Big windows let in floods of light to illuminate what is still a long and narrow dining-room.

Force of circumstance has ensured that I commit what I consider to be the reviewer's primary sin, and I have no doubt that most restaurateurs agree. Not only am I reviewing Novelli W8 in its first week of business, but I've booked lunch on the first day they've ever offered lunch. This is quite unfair. That first week is all about finding out whether the systems and dynamics work, and putting them right when they don't. A sort of preview week, really. And on top of that, we're the first people to arrive, which means that we note a rather curious feature: that all the chairs on the inner side of the room are set at a 30 degree angle to their tables (the other side comprises one long banquette, quite immune to varied posture). From our end table we can see right up the length of the long, narrow room. Is this some fancy design twist, or is it to enhance perspective and make the room look longer still?

Service is most attentive, but so it should be with only a couple of tables occupied. And the menu is infuriating. It is the kind of menu that the restrained would say "reads well". To me, it reads far too well, and I want to try most things on it, except scallops with an orange, vanilla and cardamom reduction. I've never been too keen on vanilla with fish or shellfish, nor cardamom for that matter. Pudding and fish just aren't compatible in the same mouthful, if you ask me.

Jen, my companion, disagrees and this is what she orders. It carries a pounds 4.50 supplement. (Barring the odd extra cost here and there, all the starters are pounds 4.50, and all main courses cost pounds 9.50.) When it turns up, complete with half a baton of vanilla pod perched jauntily on top, I have to admit that it looks pretty good. The scallops are enormous, plump, sweet and sea-scented, seductively glazed to a caramel brown, and nestling on a bed of skinned, bright green broad beans. I am forced to concede that, as a whole, it is a pretty damn fine dish, but it does whiff of a perfumed boudoir and I'd really rather deal with garlic in the circumstances. Jen disagrees again.

My mackerel escabeche is unexpectedly warm, which is a trifle unorthodox, but then again, why not? The fish has that lovely creamy softness that makes makerel such a bargain (no supplement needed here) and it comes on a remarkably well judged tangle of sweet, vivid peppers, carrots and onions, bathed in beetroot oil juices and redolent of coriander. The vegetables are a lively medley of pillarbox reds, yellows and oranges, and I hazard a guess that the beetroot must have been of the supremely delectable yellow variety, or perhaps even white since there is no trace of the lurid flush of common beetroot.

At home, I cook and eat relatively little red meat, which means that my inner carnivore's eyes light up at the sight on a restaurant menu of something like a long, slow-cooked daube, or stuffed pig's trotters. Luckily, Jen is like-minded and we agree to share both dishes, since neither of us can decide which we crave most. The pig's trotters, speciality of the day, are served "suivant mon humeur" which does not mean, we are firmly assured, that they may or may not be "on" depending on M Novelli's mood.

Today it happens to mean with a stuffing of black pudding, while tomorrow it may mean something quite different, depending on the morning's inspiration. Black pudding is fine by us, and the trotter is suitably melting, gelatinous, savoury and stuffed to the gills to keep any offal eater in seventh heaven. Not so sure about the dabs of puree that accompany it, which have a distinctly glutinous and rather unpleasant texture that speaks of pro-cessors rather than slower hand-operated ricers.

Not so sure about the half-cured beef daube either. We have been warned that it is quite deliberately heavily salted and it is just as well they warned us, or I might have sent it straight back. I love olives and anchovies and salty things, but this is too much for me after only a few mouthfuls, muted though it is by the pretty green pea puree. And heaven knows what the extra salty cross of grilled pancetta is doing floating on the apex. Jen disagrees (except about the pancetta which she concedes is de trop).

My pudding is a dismayingly rushed affair, as I have to dash off to a live radio interview. Two bites of the banana tarte tatin are enough to suggest that it needs some honing over the next few days, but it might be argued that my insistence on haste has contributed to the downfall of the soggy pastry and too solid bananas. Abandoning the scoop of seed-speckled vanilla ice-cream (in the right place as finale) proves far more distressing. Hurtling out of the door, I catch a glimpse of Jen, revelling in delightful undisturbed peace, as she lifts a spoonful of her coconut ice-cream to her mouth, hedgehogged with shards of perfect almond cornet, and gilded with a raspberry. I curse, mourn my vanilla ice-cream, and hail a taxi. I make it to Broadcasting House with minutes to spare, only to discover that the interview has been cancelled.

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