The 10 Cases, 16 Endell Street, London WC2
Enter stage left: A high-concept venture with minimalist menu in the heart of Theatreland
Sunday 23 October 2011
Edited choice is one of those ideas that sounds brilliant in theory, but not so terrific in reality. That "capsule collection" of five white shirts, or "manager's special book offer" often doesn't contain the one thing you want.
But when it comes to food, a little editing is a good thing. Who isn't suspicious of a menu that goes on and on, with everything from sausage and mash to Thai curry? It rather smacks of boil-in-the-bag or some other culinary dark arts.
Which brings me to The 10 Cases, a new arrival in London's Covent Garden. My theatre-going friend Alice alerted me to it – finding somewhere good on the doorstep of the big shows has been a problem until now unless you're happy with a churn-'em-out chain. I promised to be an advance party for her.
The 10 Cases has as its concept an extremely limited choice in both food and wine. Its name derives from owners Ian Campbell and Will Palmer's determination to offer a very tightly edited wine list, with 10 cases each of 10 reds and 10 whites. Everything's by the bottle, carafe or glass and once the cases are gone, they're gone.
This is a lovely idea for regulars who like to try new wines – and the keen pricing is most appealing too.
At least one of the biscuity sounding duo of Campbell and Palmer is in on the night I visit, but since I'm incognito, I can't find out which, so instead just watch an enthusiastic young man at the tiny bar keeping a close eye on the brand-new operation. And it needs a close eye.
The small, slightly spartan room holds a handful of tables and a few stools at the bar. The only real adornments are railway-style racks above the wall seats and small blackboards. These display the menu, such as it is. Because The 10 Cases is also The 9 Dishes – there are just three starters, three mains and three puds.
I've taken Mr M, and M Jr, so that we can eat everything – not possible at most restaurants. A cover charge of £1.50 a head covers good baguette and olives, but we pimp them with some pungent roasted garlic and slices of saucisson sec (£3 each from the frugal bar menu) before our meal – great with wine and conversation, not so great for the dating classes or those due to be in the confined space of a theatre afterwards...
Mr M chooses a 2008 St Joseph from Domaine du Monteillet at £32, which is complex and fruity, a good foil, particularly for his line-up of hot smoked-salmon salad and roast saddle of lamb. I have cold beef salad (which is fridge-cold and a little not-in-a-good-way fatty) and then poussin, which is gloriously tender and flavoursome, with a crisp, well-seasoned skin. M Jr has watercress soup and a whole sea bass with a vibrant salsa verde. Both are very good – he definitely has the best combo.
And getting that combo right (all starters around £5, all mains about £15) is a slight glitch for this place; with so little choice, one has to be careful not to end up with two meaty dishes, and not to get crushed potatoes with both starter and main, as Mr M did. The side dishes definitely need work – bubble and squeak and mash are two of the three, the other's a salad. Hmm.
I'm getting a slight chilly feeling, and not just because I'm sitting just inside the door. Meanwhile, puddings are plum tart, apple tart and blueberry tart (£4.50 each). I think it must be because the kitchen's been caught short, but the website indicates that the choice will always be from three tarts. Why not one lighter option, and something indulgent and chocolate-y?
I don't want to be negative. The chef, Juliette Shallow, late of Coq d'Argent in the City, can certainly cook with confidence, because the fish and the main meat dishes are perfectly judged. I applaud new ventures and love the concept, the location and the unadorned décor. So without wishing to offend, Messrs Campbell and Palmer, please could you have a bit more variation in the veggies and the puddings?
The brevity of the menu has another side-effect – we sit down at 7.30pm and have polished off our tarts by 8.30pm, and we didn't bolt anything. If you're planning – like Alice, no doubt – to pop in either before or after the theatre, it's an excellent little arrival. Let's hope it's more Mousetrap than Love Never Dies.
Scores: 1-3 stay home and cook, 4 needs help, 5 does the job, 6 flashes of promise, 7 good, 8 special, can't wait to go back, 9-10 as good as it gets
The 10 cases 16 Endell Street, London WC2, tel: 020 7836 6801 Lunch and dinner, Mon-Sat. About £80 for two, including wine
Arnold Circus, London E2, tel: 020 7729 5677
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The homely canteen annexe of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's food store is nothing special in service or ambience, but the rustic food is honest and comes in massive portions
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Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2011' www.hardens.com
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