Source Battersea, London: Restaurant review - this is the kind of place you want to keep jealously to yourself
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.
Friday 13 December 2013
Ransome’s Dock is one of those names that dinged around the heads of London foodies in the 1990s as a little dream of ‘neighbourhood dining’.
It was the gastro-equivalent of an indie record label, located outside the main food thoroughfares of central and west London, beside one of the last surviving docks built off the Thames. It was run by a husband and wife team, Martin and Vanessa Lam. Martin was head chef at Le Caprice before becoming a partner in L’Escargot with Nick Lander and the queen of Soho eateries, Elena Salvoni.
Vanessa met him while they were working at Justin De Blank’s ‘provisions shop’ in Belgravia. Both cooked – her hot prune and Armagnac soufflé was a Dock signature dish – and Martin oversaw an impressive wine list. It was a cool place; sometimes too cool because they never double-glazed the glass-and-steel back wall overlooking the dock.
Anyway, they closed in August, after 21 years, to pursue new challenges and read some long books. I went back last week following a revamp under new ownership, unsure what to expect. It’s an odd-looking place, set back from the road across a patch of wasteground, and resembles a shack, tacked on to a house, with a conservatory perched on top. But once you’re inside, on a cold November night, all is well.
The new co-owner, Johan de Jager, is a tall, bearded and charming South African who bustles you out of your coats and towards the bar. The chaps behind the bar are young and enthusiastic, as they knock up a Ransome (vodka, Aperol, pineapple, passionfruit) for the lady and a dirty vodka martini for moi, using a British vodka called Element 29 which is a real find. As is the gin distillery next door, supplying Dodd’s Gin (medicinal) and Boxer gin (smooth and herby).
Friends remember the décor at Ransome’s Dock going through a pastel phase in pinks and purples, but that may be the 1990s drugs talking. For the new incarnation, Johan’s French-Manhattan wife Elsa has stripped everything back to the original materials and gone industrial-chic – but, praise the Lord, it works. The lights, ranged in their assembly-line metal shrouds, are cute as starlight. The floor is pressed concrete and the walls whitewashed, but they feel warm. Copper pipes in the ceiling radiate cosiness. It’s a hard thing to generate, in November, an atmosphere of genuine warmth, but it enfolds you here like an airing cupboard.
The menu is short, tersely phrased and businesslike; the chef is James Adams, a West London star at Kensington Place and the River Café, and he displays a wonderfully light touch. Crab toast with lemon aioli was fresh as daisies, every white flake seething with the briny, the garlicky sauce cool and subtle, garnish slices of ruby-red chard both bitter and sweet. Angie’s slaw of broccoli, almond and cranberries was “sweet and salady and crunchy, all at the same time”, a judgement I’d happily corroborate if I could stand to eat coleslaw under any circumstances. A third starter of salmon rillettes – poached and smoked salmon mingled with dill and butter – on sourdough toast was just the thing to find on a charcuterie table. These were three summer dishes that worked a treat in late autumn.
From a choice of seven main courses, Angie had Jacob’s Ladders, an old name for beef short-ribs which the French cook for hours in classic Pot-au-feu. Here, they slow-roast the ribs overnight in thyme, sage, rosemary and wine until it’s so tender, you half-expect it to burst into tears. Heritage carrots were as sweet as Haribo. They looked, and tasted, as if they’d been braised with the beef in a huge pot for a whole weekend at my grandmother’s. My main course, brusquely summed up as ‘Mutton, polenta, spinach’ didn’t look like mutton. It looked like medium-rare steak, sexily charred, bias-cut and ready for some chips. I’m not a fan of polenta, but here it was cut with cheese, and the joint textures sang like the Haim sisters. A side order of bacon and chicory was similarly long-cooked and satisfying, though the winter greens were a touch over-salted.
Everything in Source Battersea worked a treat: our maître d’ (who nipped into the kitchen to find us a gratis picked oyster when I mentioned that they were in season); our friendly waiter Fabio (who told us his Portuguese town of Caldes da Rainha translates as ‘Queen of Puddles’); the way James Adams and his team serve up swathes of food with the utmost lightness and care; the wine, the cake-y pear-and-almond tart comfort pudding; the Pedro Ximinez sweet digestif... This is the kind of place you want to keep jealously to yourself, but can’t wait to tell your friends about. I hope it flourishes as long as its illustrious predecessor µ
Source Battersea, Unit 29, Ransome’s Dock, 35-37 Parkgate Road, London SW11 (020-7350 0555). Around £120 for two, with wine
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