Better late . . . or maybe not: Delicious marinated olives and other pleasing touches did not make up for the failures, says Emily Green
Saturday 26 March 1994
a succession of reminders and menus. Now, the Weekend desk assistant continued, 'he says there's an interesting angle - he used to be a book-binder'. I decided not to visit Percy's.
However, Mr Bricknell-Webb persisted in sending menus, and pointed out that his restaurant had a direct line to a farm in Devon, which supplied some of its produce. This sounded more like food - good food - than books, so to Percy's I went.
North Harrow is a far-flung north-west London suburb, not London at all, but Middlesex. The air is clean, the stars are bright, the houses are stuccoed Twenties villas, many with small front gardens paved over for off-street parking.
Percy's sits, bright and spruce, in an otherwise rather charmless high street. The large dining-room appears to occupy two shop-fronts, and tables are generously spaced. Fittings - bistro chairs, small paintings, coat rack, slightly gaudy ceiling fans - are standard issue and serviceable. At a guess, the waitresses are local girls: polite, sweet-natured, very presentable in their black-and-white uniforms - and clueless about the basics of waitressing.
They are overseen by Mr Bricknell-Webb himself, a delicate- looking gentleman with an anxious sort of kindliness and a line of welcoming patter that I would wager many have heard before me - and a few will have heard since.
Awaiting us at our table was a generous bowl of green olives that had been beautifully marinated and spiced with, among other things, bay leaves and cumin. They were superb. The bowl seemed large, but Percy's is a restaurant where, once those olives are finished, you may do more waiting than eating.
Twenty minutes after we ordered, Mr Bricknell-Webb did proffer bread. 'I'm not sure what's in it,' he joked. 'Cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, olives.'
There was also too much yeast, which would account for the unusual lightness and stale quality. The cheese would explain the vague taste of sick (a penalty of many baked cheeses), the olives, the salty punch.
No worry. This bread was offered only once. Had it been better, it would have been just the prop when a waitress marched up empty-handed to our table to announce: 'Your starters will be with you in five minutes.' They took 10 minutes.
At its base, 'prawn and mussel risotto' involved a scattering of intensely flavoured and undercooked wild rice. This is no relation to soft Italian risotto rice, and, when undercooked, expands painfully in the stomach. It sat in an aggressively fishy stock and hosted mussels, bits of prawn, walnuts (yes, walnuts) and some sort of garnish that tasted of blue cheese. A very poor dish. Another starter, of creamy roe on brioche with sour cream, was perfectly edible.
Main courses took 45 minutes to arrive. Waiting for them, two of us managed to finish a terrifically good bottle of Tanners pinot noir on relatively empty stomachs. Left with empty glasses and olive pips, we were tempted to chew our napkins. More traditional pacifiers were right out. 'SMOKING BANNED THROUGHOUT', reads the notice at the bottom of the menu.
By 10pm, we half suspected that Percy's was a restaurant where nobody ate. Only two parties in our view had food before them. Stranger yet, only one little girl, perhaps 11 or 12 years old, seemed to speak naturally. The couple nearest us sat silently, other groups murmured, like extras filling out a restaurant scene. Hmm, yes, quite, nod, faint smile, hmm, yes, quite, exactly. As the wait progressed, someone turned on the piped music, softly at first, then louder by degrees.
Main courses, again, produced mixed results. Mr Bricknell-Webb had done a gentle sales job on the venison, saying he brought it up from Devon himself. The meat was delicious and exceptionally tender. It was also charred, which, done judiciously, is a perfectly acceptable technique for certain meats. These are almost never served with sauce, but cooling fresh condiments such as salsa and lemon. The char of the venison mingled disastrously with some sort of reduced sauce, which tasted sweet, as if sugar or marsala had been added.
A side order of vegetables was a waste of produce. Cauliflower florets were overcooked to disintegrating point, and partnered curiously with spiced red cabbage and sliced courgettes. The courgettes had been decoratively 'turned', or sliced down the side, which seems a baroque use of time in a kitchen that has trouble getting food out of its door.
Taleggio, that most pleasing of Italian soft cheeses, was a curious choice for a tart, but the result was fine. Like the bread, however, it contained more ingredients than it needed, such as mushrooms, leeks and red bell peppers. A side salad had been coyly arranged, and looked like a plastic prop, not rough and fresh. What the waitress called 'French dressing' was yoghurt-based and a decent approximation of Thousand Island.
We had neither the appetite nor the willingness to wait for a pudding or 'organic Papua New Guinea filter coffee', and asked for the bill. Mr Bricknell-Webb noticed that I had tipped on top of an inbuilt service charge, and quickly corrected the difference.
I left feeling guilty at this kindness, then flushed with annoyance. Can the Bricknell-Webbs not see the finely tuned cooking and waiting skill that goes into a good restaurant? Have they not been to dashing professional places where customers pay to enjoy themselves rather than sit dutifully, sympathising with the struggling staff?
You do not learn how to run a restaurant in a book-binder's, but my sternest advice to them is that it is never too late to start.
Percy's, 66-68 Station Road, North Harrow, Middlesex (081- 427 2021). Approx pounds 30 for two courses, aperitif, half bottle of wine, mineral water and 10 per cent service charge. Open lunch Tues-Fri, dinner Tues-Sat. Major cards.
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