Manson, 676 Fulham Road, London
It seems only yesterday that I was standing in a nondescript side-street in Fulham, looking without enthusiasm at the tatterdemalion exterior of the Harwood Arms gastropub, before walking inside and enjoying one of the best meals of the year. Now here's another overcast day, another lunchtime taxi ride through the anonymous streets of SW6 (where the shops seem to hang their awnings with shame that they're not as classy as their Chelsea neighbours), and what shall we find this time? Will history repeat itself?
I've already heard some good reports about Manson, but none has been enthusiastic about the name. Manson. It's hard to warm to it. Whether it conjures up Charlie Manson, whose followers murdered Roman Polanski's wife Sharon Tate and her baby in 1969 ("His name," wrote his biographer, "is a metaphor for evil") or Marilyn Manson, the effortfully deranged rock star with the hideous contact lenses, neither puts you in the mood for a cosy lunch.
Soon, however, you find yourself beguiled by the country-pub décor of the place. Light floods in from two sides, and irradiates an old-fashioned array of rustic chairs and tables, a long way from the townie pretensions of haute cuisine. Everything is wooden: the floorboards, the acid-stripped chest, the bar counter and cupboards – all are apparently fashioned from slabs of timber crate, complete with vestigial stencil marks. In a pleasing touch, supplies of bread, fresh vegetables and bottles of wine are tucked away in wooden compartments above the bar. If this isn't sufficiently down-home for you, check out the distressed mirror which runs the length of the far wall, reflecting a lot of relaxed-looking Fulham dwellers sitting in the semicircular banquettes, complete with their organic shopping and squalling baby. It's a warm and welcoming interior, as embracing as a favourite pub.
There's nothing pubby about the food, though. Presiding over the kitchen is young Gemma Tuley, who trained as a chef under Gordon Ramsay at Claridges Hotel and in Paris. After some rumoured falling-out with the great man, she removed his name from her curriculum vitae, and set up on her own, first at Arch One in Waterloo and now here. You can tell from the get-go that you're in safe hands. Arriving in a stout black casserole, my mussels were huge, thick as damask pillows and soft as a kiss from a Disney gazelle. At the bottom, the soup was a simple blend of wine, cream, onions and tomato bits. Who said mussels and cream don't go together? They should come here, pronto.
My date Madeleine's scallops sat, tanned rather than seared, on a bed of lightly breadcrumbed crabmeat. The combination was heaven, a paradisiacal wedding of seafood flavours, given a touch of sweetness by the breaded carapace. "They might be panko breadcrumbs, you know," said Madeleine. (It's always galling when one's guest knows more about exotic food than one.)
Her main course of stone bass (the menu is on the brusque side – any other restaurant would rabbit on about "pan-fried seabass") with polenta cake and red pepper caviar was also a triumph, the fish so toastily charred, fresh and delicious, the polenta so unexpectedly creamy, the beetroot and salady leaves (were they pea shoots?) so full of aromas of spring. It also looked beautiful, a Fauvist melange of colours.
My braised pork belly had been worked at by expert flavour-extractors. Rather than leave it in a slab in the roasting pan, until its fatty section starts to fall apart, Ms Tuley had wrapped it up tightly with string, braised it until crunchy outside, and served it (minus the string) in a rotund slab which you had to unfold, steaming and fibrous. The porky flavours on the tongue were amazingly moist and succulent. Sharing the plate were salted grapes and salsify, very lightly cooked in a verjus sauce. They went together just fine – and when the unfolded pork belly met the light sauce in the middle of the plate, it was a revelation, a love affair between young and old, ancient and modern, experience and innocence. Such subtlety! Such a change from all the chefs trying to yoke a dozen flavours together by violence!
The mains were so filling we felt stuffed, but I had my eye on the Sailor Jerry rum baba with tropical fruit and crème Chantilly, to share. Sailor Jerry is a newish, but very superior sweet rum of which I am slightly over-fond. On a rum baba cake it's bliss. With crème Chantilly, it's beyond description. And when Ms Tuley adds smidgeons of diced kiwi fruit and pineapple, you're taken beyond bliss and words to realms of le petit mort.
It was a wonderful lunch. For all its naïve rustic charm, the Manson has a star of real urban sophistication in its midst. If only its name made you think of Shirley "Stupid Girl" Manson, rather than her more horrible namesakes.
Manson, 676 Fulham Road, London SW6 (020-7384 9559)
About £100 for two, with wine (unless you stick to the cheapo lunch special)
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"
Side Orders: Ramsay protégés
Ramsay-trained Russell Bateman's imaginative dishes include hare with chocolate, pumpkin, amaretto and rosemary.
Grove Hotel, Chandler's Cross, Hertfordshire (01923 807 807)
The Pony & Trap
Try the chargrilled belly pork with black pudding and cauliflower purée at this country inn, where ex-Ramsay scholar Josh Eggleton is head chef.
Chew Magna, Bristol (01275 332627)
Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley
The eponymous eatery of perhaps the most famous Ramsay protégé of all is the last word in haute cuisine.
Wilton Place, London SW1 (020-7235 1200)
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