Soif, 27 Battersea Rise, London SW11
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 10 December 2011
EM Forster once wrote an essay called "Battersea Rise". It was the name of the house where his great-aunt, Marianne Thornton, lived, a very grand place somewhere among the huge Edwardian mansions around Clapham Common. The Rise itself never had many pretensions, however. It's a strip of London's South Circular up which, in the 1960s, enormous car-transporter lorries used to run through the night and make the houses shake.
How do I know? Because, dear reader, Battersea Rise was where I grew up between the ages of 10 and 18. I know every inch of it. I remember when, across the road from our house at No 8, you'd find Midwinters the grocers, Kalsi the chemist, Edwardes the furniture store, plus a butcher and a baker.
I remember when Battersea began to change from grotty up-the-Junction rat hole to a rather fashionable suburb; it was when Acquired Taste appeared, the first wine shop-cum-delicatessen with its array of posh clarets and French cheeses and the salutation in the window that asked passers-by, rather snootily, "Why cross the river?". (On the other side of the Rise, the newspaper shop put a jar of peaches in the window, with a cheeky sign that read: "We got peaches in brandy and we sell fags. Why cross the road?".)
Now all the shops have gone, to be replaced by restaurants. I don't know where in London you'll find such a concentration of restaurants as upper Battersea Rise, many of them with their names in gigantic lettering. Tucked shyly among them is Soif, an unprepossessing-looking place with an excellent pedigree. It's the third eaterie to be opened by Ed Wilson and Oli Barker, who triumphed with their first wine-bar/restaurant, Terroirs, off the Strand, and followed up with the well-regarded Brawn on Columbia Road in east London. They specialise in earthy French regional ingredients, pungent charcuterie, reeking game, astonishing offal and smelly cheese and tend to leave you stuffed like a Strasbourg goose. And now they've been joined by Colin Westal, until recently head chef at Le Café Anglais in Kensington.
Though their press material calls Soif a wine bar, it's hard to miss the team of brawny chefs sweating over hot stoves in the back room. This is a restaurant, and a howlingly unpretentious one. With its neutral decor, wooden floors, red-topped tables and zinc bar, it's more like a small-town French bar than a pricey London eaterie. You feel everyone in here should be furiously smoking and shrugging.
The menu is stripped down and blunt as a fist: "Pig Cheeks, Cider & Turnips" it informs you, shortly, "Duck Confit, Beans, Trotters". It comes close to saying, "What you lookin' at?". We had clams with lemon and coriander, served in their shells, small and sweet, and we had to try the "Heirloom Beetroots" with pickled walnuts out of curiosity. They were small and perfect baby beetroots of a vivid orange and lemon colour, along with lumps of the purple kind. And we made a discovery: put baby beetroot with pickled walnut and you get – Branston Pickle.
The bluntly-named Squid and Black Pudding was a revelation. I've had scallops with black pudding a score of times, and I expected the usual 50p-sized roundel of pig's blood. Instead, the divinely smoky pipes of squid sat on a big hockey puck of boudin noir, gently cooked, soft and densely flavoursome. Ed Wilson told me it was made by a Basque butcher called Christian Parra. What, I asked, is in it apart from blood and pepper? "Oh – lung, heart, throat," said Ed, "and – hang on, I'll just ask." He went away and returned. "Bits of head," he said reassuringly. I felt so much better for knowing that.
Main courses brought more novelty tastes. Angie's roasted hake ("Absolutely delicious, fresh and meaty") was given a nice counterpoint of crunchy chickpeas, sexed up by Romesco, the Spanish sauce that combines tomato with hazelnuts crushed together with pimento peppers. It was delicious. My roast partridge was served whole with a kilo of choucroute (or sauerkraut) and a fat Montbéliard sausage the size of a baby's arm. I must have put on three pounds just looking at it. The partridge was beautifully cooked, the breast so virginally white, the fat little legs so pungently purple, and tasty as hell. But what with the ocean of choucroute and the vast sausage, this was a dish that would have defeated a team of Provençal truckers, and I couldn't finish it.
Our unfeasibly dashing Spanish waiter Abel spoke with such urgency about the Apéritif de Coing Sauvage pudding wine, I had to try it with the pannacotta, quince and chestnuts. Because (as I'm sure you knew) coing means quince, blended here with elderflower and white cherries; the combination of pudding, fruit, chestnuts and wine was gorgeous. We left Soif feeling stuffed, but impressed by the gutsy intensity of the chef's cooking. Battersea Rise has come a long way since my short-trouser days at No 8.
Soif, 27 Battersea Rise, London SW11 (020-7223 1112)
About £100 for two, with wine
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"
The divinely smoky pipes of squid sat on a big hockey puck of soft and densely flavoursome boudin noir
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