The Lawn Bistro, 67 High Street, London SW19
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 16 June 2012
The actual tennis of Wimbledon is played in Southfields, two Tube stops away from the famous suburb, but that doesn't stop the world and his tennis partner from descending on the Village like the Assyrians on Jerusalem. What they find to eat when they arrive can be uninspiring. For every good, reliable restaurant (such as San Lorenzo Fuoriporto at the bottom of the hill), there are too many yawn-making gastropubs, chains and iffy spice houses.
The Village, a trendily bourgeois zig-zag of bars and pricey clothing shops, has seen a fair turnover of classy restaurants, all aching to be the one that plays host to the Williams sisters or to Andy Murray on their night of triumph. And bang in the middle of the Village's main drag, on a site formerly occupied by a stolid joint called Lydon's, is the latest challenger for the title: The Lawn.
Its owner is a Surrey-dwelling Uzbekistani called Akbar Ashurov, unknown to me as a restaurateur, but its chef, Ollie Couillaud, has an impressive track record. He cut his teeth at La Trompette, Chiswick's finest French eating-house; he wielded a mean cleaver at Tom's Kitchen; he could be found in the best hotels, including the Dorchester Grill and the Grosvenor House restaurant called Bord'eaux, whose annoying Hear'Say-style apostrophe was surely one reason for its early closure.
It's surprising, given this fancy CV, that The Lawn is so unpretentious. From the website photos and the sample prix-fixe menu, I went expecting a hushed and priestly atmosphere. Instead you walk into a noisy, rather crowded, extremely friendly neighbourhood bistro.
The décor is pared-down chic, cautiously neutral. The walls are painted (I'm guessing) that Farrow & Ball shade of grey called Elephant's Breath, the button-back sofa is grey with orange buttons, the mirrors are artfully distressed, the pictures apparently a job-lot of images specially selected to leave no trace in the memory. But it seems rude to carp at the fittings when the main thing you experience in The Lawn is the eager chattering of a Friday-night crowd unintimidated by serious high-end cuisine or hefty prices.
Couillaud's cooking is classic French, with grace notes from Spain: you can go from a jug of sangria to an Andalucian gazpacho to Castilla y Leon sheep's cheese in three Hispanic hops. Typical spring dishes, such as grilled salmon with asparagus, or cod fillet with baby leeks and clams, are interspersed with unusual combinations of texture. The gazpacho, for example, came with marinated scallops and beetroot "Chantilly" – a delicious sorbet that lifted a dish, while the tomatoes comprehensively overwhelmed the single, sliced scallop. Grilled tiger prawns with chorizo was a happy marriage of spice and texture, served with vegetables "à la Grecque" (peppers, aubergines, courgettes). My wood pigeon ravioli came in a chicken-and-pigeon-breast broth with duck hearts and spring vegetables, an odd but pungent combination: game with chicken stock and a wallop of tarragon. I'd never tasted duck hearts before: they were like small brown savoury sweets, and offered a strange, alien counterpoint to the heartiness of peas, broad beans and asparagus.
My guests wrestled briefly with the appeal of seven-hour-cooked salt marsh lamb, with chicken breast stuffed with foie gras, with pan-fried sea trout and with asparagus risotto (The Lawn is really keen on asparagus) before yielding to the temptation of côte de boeuf for two with "big chips" and Béarnaise sauce. It arrived like the climax of a medieval banquet, served in a Le Creuset casserole, eight thick tranches of tender beef, coral-rare, carved off an evilly blackened bone. It was a dish for serious carnivores; there was enough for three diners, not two. The chips were obese, as advertised, but fluffy inside. "Perfect for exhausted tennis players after a five-setter," said Angie through a large mouthful. My chargrilled Gloucester Old Spot pork chop was a thing of beauty, resembling, with its sticking-out bone, an antique brown frying-pan. Somehow the chef had packed sage inside it, and the chop's porky richness was underscored by a fume of incense. It sat on an assembly of Jersey royals, apples, fennel and – my goodness, imagine that – asparagus, and reeked of health and summer.
The treat of the evening was pudding, however: we shared a Baked Alaska, flambéed at the table with Grand Marnier. Why has my life been bereft of Baked Alaska until now? Flamed with drama by our sweet, nervy waitress Kate, it was fabulous. The combination of hot meringue and cold ice-cream, which so astonished a delegation of Chinese dignitaries visiting Paris in 1867, was dished up here on a light panettone base, and was stunning, like eating a cloud. It rounded off a meal that balanced the old-fashioned with the quirky, the chunky with the subtle, the comforting with the surprising. I can see le tout Wimbledon Tennis beating a path to Ollie Couillaud's door in the next few weeks.
The Lawn Bistro, 67 High Street, London SW19 (020-8947 8278)
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"
Side orders: SW19 smashes
Fox and Grapes
Claude Bosi's south London outpost serves upmarket gastropub grub – try the Cornish fisherman's pie and mixed salad (£13.50).
9 Camp Road, London SW19 (020-8619 1300)
San Lorenzo Fuoriporto
The impeccably-cooked classic Italian dishes on offer here include grilled sea bass with sage and garlic served with rosemary potatoes (£18.50).
38 Wimbledon Hill, London SW19 (020-8946 8463)
Butcher & Grill
Choose your favourite cut from the meat counter and have it cooked to perfection – a 280g 28-day aged ribeye steak will set you back £21.
33 High Street, Wimbledon Village, London SW19 (020-8944 8269)
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