Terra Incognico

At the "Stevenage end" of Shaftesbury Avenue, Nico Ladenis has created an art deco ocean liner fit for a French aristocrat
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

backpack, exploring London's Theatreland, something happens when you get to Cambridge Circus. A panic button is triggered. A U-turnis instigated with immediate effect. For the determined Londoner, doggedly continuing along Shaftesbury Avenue, you find yourself emerging from West End mania into something that feels like it belongs in Stevenage. The pavements are suddenly empty. The street lighting seems dimmer. A couple of office blocks, a builders' merchant and a perpetually empty cinema are among the only signs of civilisation.

backpack, exploring London's Theatreland, something happens when you get to Cambridge Circus. A panic button is triggered. A U-turnis instigated with immediate effect. For the determined Londoner, doggedly continuing along Shaftesbury Avenue, you find yourself emerging from West End mania into something that feels like it belongs in Stevenage. The pavements are suddenly empty. The street lighting seems dimmer. A couple of office blocks, a builders' merchant and a perpetually empty cinema are among the only signs of civilisation.

It's into this "Stevenage" end of Shaftesbury Avenue that Nico Ladenis has ventured with his new restaurant, Incognico. For the much lauded, Michelin-crowned Ladenis, this is essentially a populist affair. However, if your credit card isn't named after a precious metal, this is no place to pop in for a quick snack.

A £12.50 pre-theatre menu is Ladenis's concession to the West End hordes, the intention being that you can sup like a French aristocrat before rolling down the road to take in Les Misérables. After 7pm, however, the à la carte menu properly tackled is likely to strip you of a three-figure sum for a pair of diners.

Styled in a manner somewhere between an Edwardian gentleman's club and an art deco ocean liner, with oak-panelled walls and a generous sweep of marble bar, Incognico quietly proclaims its pedigree. The French seem capable of pulling off a form of chic that's modern without being modernist, comfortable without aiming for anything as naff as luxury. It somehow puts you on your best behaviour without a hint of intimidation.

This is fitting, since the food operates in just the same way. From the crispy surface through to a succulent, almost rubbery core, the seared scallops I had to start offered the range of textures within each bite that only the best seafood can achieve. Served with a sliver of garlic on top, but no other sauce or flavouring to distract from their subtleties, this modest act was accompanied by a rocket salad with a surprisingly aggressive dressing. Putting these two on the same plate seemed at first like putting John Tavener and Britney Spears on the same stage, yet somehow the contrast worked - the pushiness of the salad managing to make the modest scallops seem all the better. (Could the same go for a Tavener/ Spears double act, too?) My friend's starter of fresh pasta in a creamy truffle sauce was equally impressive, the nutty, outdoorsy, mossy savour of the truffles wafting idyllically across the table.

While many restaurants of this type offer that unique style of French service that is at once sycophantic and patronising, the waiting staff at Incognico are pleasantly straightforward, erring if anything on the side of absence. While slow service is infinitely preferable to its opposite, there were longueurs between courses where I stopped thinking "this is classy" and began to wonder if they had forgotten about me.

When it finally arrived, my confit of duck with a cep sauce proved to be worth the wait. A lone slab of meat sitting on a slick of glistening sauce, the presentation seemed to have taken the aesthetic ideal of nouvelle cuisine, yet remembered that the diner wants something to eat as well as something to look at. With none of the greasiness or heaviness that often afflicts duck, this was an unusually light and crispy dish, grounded by viscous, earthy sauce.

The side dishes of mashed potato (or pomme purée as it gets called in this kind of establishment) and courgettes with butter and garlic deserved attention in their own right, cooked with delicacy and skill - the potato creamy without being cloying, the courgettes melting on the tongue but retaining a degree of bite.

One of life's great pleasures, after an excellent meal, is the dessert menu. It was clear that my chocolate marquise would be good. Quite how good came as a shock. With difficulty I avoided re-enacting a certain scene from When Harry Met Sally, before emerging into the deserted streets of upper Shaftesbury Avenue confident that, with a couple more restaurants like this, Soho and Bloomsbury will soon be holding hands across the void. *

Comments