Food and Drink: A bullish mood in Fulham Road - How long does it take a restaurant to become one of London's best? About five days - if it's run by Stephen Bull, writes Emily Green
Saturday 05 March 1994
He cares about food and likes it served with a bit of dash. In fact, he likes it so much, he left a career in advertising in the Seventies to study restaurants with Peter Langan. He opened his first restaurant in north Wales, out of sneering distance of old London media cronies, then moved to Richmond, Surrey, where he was awarded a Michelin star for a place called Lichfield's. Though long gone from that cosy suburb, Mr Bull retains something approaching folk-hero status there, especially among the people who run the cheese shop.
And yet it was not until 1989, when he opened his modern but luxurious restaurant in Blandford Street, that it became clear how good he was. The restaurant's charms were manifold, but its signal accomplishment was its wine list. Precious few places with seriously good food and linen tablecloths had bothered to offer a short list of wines, so intelligently chosen, for an average price of pounds 17 a bottle. That only real dumps nowadays try to extort pounds 22.50 for, say, a cheap Sancerre, is a credit in no small part to Stephen Bull.
The best thing about him is that he has taste. As his business expands, this shows increasingly in the people he employs. As architect, he chose the young Irish designer David Collins. This was a safe bet. Mr Collins has to his credit a string of the best restaurants in London: The Square in St James's, La Tante Claire and the Canteen, both in Chelsea, his spiritual home, for he is a master at saying 'OK, yah' with furniture. There is, however, something special about his work: sumptuously woven fabrics with playful designs; elegant but comfortable chairs; whimsical and flattering lamplighting, a faint fairy-tale quality to his rooms. Rapunzel could let down her hair.
The incredibly sleek but brainy woman running front of house is Marian Scrutton. She comes from Nico Ladenis's restaurant in Great Portland Street, and those great lions of catering positively purr when it comes to describing Ms Scrutton. She is that good. If you arrive alone and encounter an awkward wait, she will smooth it. On your second visit, she will recognise you. If something needs doing, she sees that it is done.
She is also, it must be said, lucky. She is serving some of the best food in London. The chef is the 29-year-old Richard Corrigan, who threatens from time to time to return to his native Ireland. Fortunately, it is unlikely that Mr Corrigan will go home until north and south unite. Having listened several times to this man's ideas on cooking, I doubt that either half of Ireland alone could accommodate his ego.
What saves him from being just another conceited chef is his talent and the sort of big-heartedness that shows on the plate. He gives you close to perfect food, and lots of it. Hell, it is better than perfect. It is exciting.
In three years, I have eaten Mr Corrigan's food at three different London restaurants: Mulligan's in Cork Street, Bentley's in Swallow Street, and now at Fulham Road. It is tiresome chasing chefs about town, and I hope he stays put at Fulham Road. The odds are good. In a sense, he is coming home. He trained with Mr Bull in Blandford Street from 1989 to 1991.
Given that he is a restaurant chef, you can count on a certain amout of dolling up of food, but you will rarely find Mr Corrigan corrupting it. He is well in tune with the flavours and textures of his various ingredients, so his ministrations improve them. Even the sound of his food makes the saliva flow, as mine did on reading 'monkfish wrapped in cured ham with globe artichokes and crab juices'.
For the year he was at Bentley's I would drop in at any excuse for his salted herrings. He learnt how to cure them in the Netherlands and they were superb, served on a potato salad that had been cooked in a wine, shallot and vinegar reduction, then tossed with diced, grilled bacon. Sometimes there was kitchen-pickled cucumber thrown in.
At Fulham Road, his food is better than ever. As evidence, I offer veal tartare. The freshest and sweetest of meat was minced, blended with olive oil, lemon and garlic, then served in a little mound with slivers of garlic and some comely bits of salad. It was a superb dish, if a little more delicately presented than you would find it in 150-year- old trattorias in Piedmont.
This is not to say that, like so many witless chefs, Mr Corrigan is desperately aping the Italians. He takes what he wants from where he wants, with true greed and an almost crazy confidence. Also plundered from Italy was risotto, and the one I sampled, flavoured with celery, walnuts and gorgonzola, was superb.
The meat for a daube of ox cheek and tongue he buys from France. (British butchers, he says, shred and thus destroy ox cheeks.) It was served melting and full of flavour from hours of braising, with cannelloni that were filled with chard and field mushrooms.
Another main course showed a frivolous side: a fillet of perfectly cooked John Dory sat slightly above its sauce on a generous scattering of macaroni. These noodles held a truffly sauce. Some perfect bits of langoustine loitered to the side of the fish. Given the powerful musk of the truffles, this dish was bound to be sexy, but the sauce was light.
As a side-dish, spinach was overcooked and slightly over-salted. But a green salad, full of vigorous day-fresh leaves, was perfection.
Desserts are not Mr Corrigan's strong point, but a banana cream in meringue was fun and childishly good. A clafoutis was not so good. With all the gutsy savoury stuff, we drank a 1989 barolo. It was big and velvety, though with the harsh backbone that signals a great wine - a good choice, but then, it would be difficult to choose badly. Those looking for oddities might try the sprightly Californian white Malvasia Bianca from Monterey. Prices seem higher than the trend-setting list at Blandford Street, but there is reasonable choice for less than pounds 15 a bottle.
Still, Fulham Road is expensive. Starters run from pounds 4.50 to pounds 9; main courses pounds 10.50 to pounds 14.50. Each vegetable order adds pounds 2.50. Mineral water is pounds 3, coffee pounds 2. This adds up alarmingly. A meal for two, with tip, cost pounds 110. The price, I suppose, of Chelsea swank.
Fulham Road Restaurant, 257-259 Fulham Road, London SW3 (071-351 7823). Vegetarian meals by arrangement. Open lunch and dinner daily. Visa, Access, Amex.
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