Joe's 126 Draycott Avenue, London SW3
Can a new chef return a trendy venue from style empire Joseph to its hip best?
Sunday 11 September 2011
Fashion and food go together like, well, they don't actually go together all that much. If one likes fashion, one can't like food too much. It inhibits the ability to fit into the clothes, as we know all too well.
I bought my wedding outfit at Joseph, the achingly chic emporium started in 1972 by the inimitable Joseph Ettedgui. At the time a standard size 10, I had the embarrassment of asking whether they had the trousers of the white trouser-suit I wanted in Large.
The Joseph empire by then had introduced a very chic restaurant called Joe's, which was probably a pioneer of the ladies-who-lunch scene; it sat between branches of Joseph in the newly coined "Brompton Cross". I remember it was very much a "glass of house white and salad" stop-off for we Elle girls and when I moved out of glossy magazines and, coincidentally out of a size 10, I stopped going to South Ken and to Joe's.
I hadn't thought about it in years until recently, when I started hearing good things about newly installed chef Maria Elia. Particularly the praise for her strawberry risotto, which piqued my interest because it sounded like food as fashion, not flavour.
Putting my preconceptions aside, I went along with Mr M and my sister Claire, who's always game for a food adventure. The room is full of sleek, slim, well-groomed South Kensington residents – people for whom eating out is no more remarkable than brushing teeth.
The room is equally sleek and cleverly divided by open-sided display shelves, so when the restaurant isn't full, it doesn't look cavernous. Elia, the executive chef, is Anglo-Greek and already has a profile thanks to regular appearances on the foodie programmes which now proliferate on TV. She has also done the obligatory season at El Bulli, and the "trendy gallery" stint with both Delfina and the Whitechapel Gallery restaurants.
Apart from that strawberry risotto, there are other flashes of intrigue on the menu, such as textures of peas and Cornish mackerel two ways. There are also several protein-high dishes, such as haddock carpaccio and char-grilled rib eye for Dukan disciples.
Over a few glasses of decent Malbec, we debate who's going to eat the risotto. Since none of us can commit, we ask for a starter-ish size that all three of us can sample. I fear it may have blown my cover, but I can't bear being the dismal one with a plateful of stodge I can't eat (after a very unhappy experience with a champagne risotto at 5 Pollen Street a few months ago).
We needn't have worried – of course. With Elia's deft touch the dish is both rich and light, radicchio lending a depth of flavour that gives the berries something to shine against. And despite me balking at the idea of cheese, somehow it works.
After that, my main course, spiced slow-braised lamb with rainbow chard and chickpeas, is a disappointment (too pappy a texture and unappealing in a barrel formation), but I get a few forkfuls of Mr M's pea ensemble. Without wishing to get all sexist on you, this really is one for the ladies. Apparently Elia uses mind-mapping to dream up her conceptual dishes – seemingly, this is what a woman who wants tasty food but not to feel all "snake that's swallowed a goat" is after.
Peas come in soup, fritter, jelly, puréed and in a light pasta formation. There are no bum notes – surprising for one simple component. I love it and look forward to eating other "textures of..." dishes that she promises over the seasons.
Claire's thrilled with monkfish, cauliflower, pistachio, mint and preserved lemon cous cous, declaring it one of the finest balances of flavours and textures she's eaten in years.
A fantabulous cherry variety pack of clafoutis, cherry and chocolate rice pudding and cherry ice-cream (an absolute steal at £3.50) is pretty and toothsome and just right for sharing.
Joe's deserves to be for ladies who breakfast, lunch and dinner. It is delicious, pretty to look at and satisfying without heft. But don't think it's just for them: the father of two fashionable waifs at the next table looked thoroughly happy with his steak, chips and ice-cream.
Ettedgui died last year, but his fashion label continues to turn out super-stylish clothes. I think he would have fully appreciated the stylishness of the dishes at his namesake restaurant, too. 1
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
Joe's 126 Draycott Avenue, London SW3, tel: 020 7225 2217 Open 9am-11pm, Tues-Sat; 9am-6pm, Sun-Mon. About £120 for three, including wine
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Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2011' www.hardens.com
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