Restaurant Michael Nadra, 42 Gloucester Avenue, London NW1
Saturday 27 October 2012
This week's review comes with its own soundtrack – the bass-driven "I Shoulda Loved Ya", Narada Michael Walden's 1979 disco hit. Damn, that song is catchy. From the moment I booked a table at Restaurant Michael Nadra in Primrose Hill, it lodged as an earworm; I was still humming it while I waited for my guest in the restaurant's Martini bar.
Yes, a Martini bar – in Primrose Hill. Somehow that feels all wrong; like finding a Spearmint Rhino in Chipping Norton. But these are tumultuous times for the bien-pensant north London enclave. Once the bohemian home of writers and intellectuals, the area is turning into Notting Hill-on-Hill, with long-established shops being forced out by cafés serving cupcakes to yummy mummies. You can't call it gentrification; Primrose Hill was never exactly rough. More celebrification, as residents such as Jamie Oliver and Gwen Stefani replace the likes of the Milibands, and the bankish see off the bookish.
Now the neighbourhood has a glossy new restaurant to match its glossy new residents. Restaurant Michael Nadra occupies the canalside premises of what used to be Sardo Canale, a Sicilian joint that felt too formal and expensive to function as the perfect local.
That has now been replaced by somewhere even more formal and expensive. RMN is the second opening from a young British chef who has worked under Bruce Poole and Marcus Wareing, and opened his first solo venture in Chiswick in 2005. How it's possible to have your name over the door of two restaurants at opposite ends of town, implying that you're cooking at both, is a mystery.
But Narada… sorry, Nadra clearly wants to make a serious name for himself, judging by the sophisticated, luxe-leaning dishes on his menu. Or rather menus; as well as the à la carte, he offers tasting menus, a prix fixe lunch option and a brunch menu which contains what might be the most preposterous dish of the year – 'sautéed foie gras with pink grapefruit, fried duck egg and HP jus'. That's right, HP jus. Let's just avert our eyes and move on with our lives.
There are no further jokes on the menu (assuming, charitably, that it was a joke). The menu descriptions list every ingredient, and might well take longer to read aloud than to eat, given that this is cooking from the school of big white plates and dainty quantities.
We started with an amuse-bouche, a single deep-fried whitebait perched on some kind of purée (the lighting was rather low, or 'flattering' as my guest Helen Fielding put it). Then wonton-ish dumplings filled with prawn, scallop and chives, with a vivid, chlorophyllic velouté of broccoli and spinach.
Helen's starter, ravioli filled with confit duck, was a neat idea well delivered. Less so the slightly underpowered consommé that held them, served at a volcanic temperature suggesting someone in the kitchen had spotted us sniggering over the 'HP jus' in the bar and decided to teach us a lesson.
Reassuringly, there would probably have been a personal injury lawyer on hand, given the profile of our fellow diners; groups of well-heeled thirtysomethings, and high-heeled women with big hair and small husbands.
The scalding incident was soon forgiven, thanks to the quality of our main courses. Venison came two ways, the saddle roasted and sliced rare, the shank slow-cooked to fathomless richness. A gamey take on a sausage roll and a rosti of vegetables tipped the dish towards comfort food, anchored by a glossy sauce flavoured with dark chocolate. Helen's grouse had been through the full Bridget Jones grooming protocol; the shiny legs served separately on a side plate, the pert breast accessorised with girolles, watercress and bread sauce, which Helen mistook for Smash. Again, a first-class sauce held everything together. "As Marco says, it's all to do with concentration of tastes," Helen observed airily.
After dishes characterised by delicacy, it was disappointing to end with a tarte tatin resembling a giant Yorkshire pudding filled with apple and ice-cream. Baked figs with yogurt sorbet were better, although I regretted my decision to pair them with a glass of Cosecha Pedro Ximenez, as viscous as cough mixture.
There's no doubt that Michael Nadra is a talented chef. But something about his new restaurant doesn't hang together. The space is difficult, with its awkward division into three disconnected areas. We were sitting in the most convivial of them – a brick-lined cobbled tunnel reclaimed from the building's industrial past – but we still felt we were missing out on the action. In truth, there wasn't any. The building lacks a heart.
Michael Nadra was at the bar when we left and we exchanged goodbyes. He was matey and charming – everything his restaurant isn't. I don't live far from Primrose Hill, and know that the area is crying out for a great local restaurant. Despite the quality of the cooking, I'm afraid this isn't it. Michael – I shoulda loved ya. But I didn't.
Restaurant Michael Nadra, 42 Gloucester Avenue, London NW1 (020-7722 2800)
Around £40 a head before wine and service. Six-course tasting menu £49 a head. Prix fixe (lunch and early evening): £14 for two courses, £18 for three courses
Tipping policy: 'Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary. All service charge and tips go to the staff'
Side orders: Sister restaurants
Tom Kitchin, whose eponymous restaurant is one of Edinburgh's finest, serves equally innovative cuisine at his second restaurant.
33/35 Castle Terrace, Edinburgh (0131 229 1222)
The Ferryboat Inn
Set in a stunning location on the Helford Passage, this atmospheric inn is an offshoot of the seafood bar Wright Brothers in London and serves fresh shellfish alongside pub classics.
Helford Passage, Falmouth, Cornwall (01326 250 625)
Like its Exmouth Market predecessor, the formula of top-notch cooking, good prices and great atmosphere is pulling in the locals.
1 Granary Square, London N1 (020-7101 7661)
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