Restaurant review: Granny knows best but will PipsDish's take-it-or-leave-it cooking catch on?
PipsDish, 15 Exeter Street, London WC2 (020-7240 7232)
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Saturday 02 November 2013
Gastro-minimalism has a new face. Forget the specialist burger vans that did a roaring trade in south London before becoming actual restaurants, like MeatLiquor.
Forget the 'pop-up' restaurants that brought limited-period fancy cuisine to unusual settings, as when The French Laundry touched down like a UFO in Harrods. PipsDish takes the concept of the restaurant to extremes of simplicity. Look around this tiny box of a place (it used to be a cookie shop) and you may feel dismayed. I've been in sandwich bars that promise a more fulfilling gourmand experience.
Your eye takes in the four (count 'em – four!) tables, the wooden-bench seating, apparently made from planks glued together, the cheapo, whitewash-and film-poster decor (West Side Story, Fassbinder's Querelle). Blue fairy lights are trained around the room in a desperate attempt at jollity.
On top of a wooden structure that houses cookbooks, there's a little display of 'produce' – lemons, garlics, squash – as though we're at a sparsely-attended harvest festival. In the kitchen area, the pass and the dinner plates' stack jostle for space. The restaurant's entire wine cellar and computerised till are both located in a beautiful old French armoire. Only a shiny plastic-skinned Smeg fridge suggests any concession to the modern world.
You can appreciate my confusion: it was like straying on to the set of a one-act Beckett play set in someone's kitchen, a simulacrum of cosiness, where everything is a prop, rather than a real thing. "This is exactly like being in the kitchen of my girlfriend's flat in Notting Hill," said Angie, "when we were both 21 and starting out."
Could we see the menu? No, said Olivia, our sweet waitress, there weren't any menus. But she'd tell us what was on today. Minestrone and Welsh rarebit. Game terrine with lamb's lettuce. Then, for main courses, stuffed mushrooms. Or pork shoulder with stir-fried chard.
We waited. Was that it? That was it. Olivia explained that the owner, Philip Dundas, or his head cook Mary, go to market every morning, see what they fancy cooking, then bring it home and cook it. Ce n'est pas le science de roquette.
As readers of Breakfast with Lucian by Geordie Greig will know, Freud conducted his weekly breakfast salon in Sally Clarke's in Kensington, where the main attraction is that Ms Clarke gives you no choice about what you're eating. I've always found this approach arrogant and unbending in the Mother-knows-best, take-it-or-starve sense. Maybe some aspirant lunchers who venture in here will vamoose on learning the deal, and head for Joe Allen's next door. But they'd be missing a trick. It may not be gourmet, but PipsDish is Home Cooking at its purest.
The game terrine, of venison, rabbit and pork sausage, made on the premises and served with half a slice of toasted sourdough (steady on) was supple and pungently flavoursome, given bite and sweetness by pink beetroot batons in cider vinegar. Angie's minestrone seethed with fresh vegetables, including tiny chanterelle mushrooms, and threatened, with the toasted cheese and French mustard, to be a one-course meal. "It's perfect winter-lunch food," she said.
But she found room for the stuffed mushrooms, served with stir-fried cabbage and sauerkraut, and pronounced them fine. My shoulder of pork had been triple-smoked and cooked in London stout, and was utterly delicious, a dish with enfolding arms. The accompanying stir-fried chard and savoy cabbage was a little over-vinegarised, but harmonised with the smoky pig.
The secret of his cooking, Philip ('Pip') Dundas revealed, is using a pressure cooker, a process he learnt from his granny – the owner, it turned out, of the armoire in the corner. A handsome chap in his thirties, Dundas has published a book, Cooking Without Recipes, which adopts a breezily non-dirigiste approach to culinary excellence. He recommends simplicity, a "scattergun approach" to shopping, and giving in to "mood" and "feel" when planning something to eat. Presented with the only pudding, a chocolate and almond cake with a pear poached in a red wine reduction, I too gave in to mood and feel, and devoured it in seconds.
PipsDish represents the opposite of every modern tendency in restaurateurship. It buys limited ingredients (thus cutting down waste), cooks them in a way Pip's granny would have approved, finishes every dish without elaboration or fuss, and serves it as if the restaurant's only intention was to feed the hungry. Could it catch on? I sure hope so.
PipsDish, 15 Exeter Street, London WC2 (020-7240 7232). About £70 for two, with wine
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