Aaaaaaaaah." The soft, long-drawn-out sigh is coming from my table, from four different mouths. What is it - a new-born baby in pink cashmere, a fleecy little lamb? No, the waiter has just placed a whole cauliflower down in the centre of the table, all softly golden from its crusty, cheesy coating.
"Aaaaaaaaah." The soft, long-drawn-out sigh is coming from my table, from four different mouths. What is it - a new-born baby in pink cashmere, a fleecy little lamb? No, the waiter has just placed a whole cauliflower down in the centre of the table, all softly golden from its crusty, cheesy coating.
It is a homely, nostalgic touch, and very much in keeping with the Pig's Ear's sweet little upstairs dining-room. Corseted in dark panelling, floored with wide planks and sash-windowed, it is a warm and comfortable space, the 10 white-clothed tables ranged around a centrepiece table ringed by gleaming ice-buckets. The relative calm and gentility is in stark contrast to the frenetic hurly-burly of the zinc-countered downstairs bar, an equally charming space that loses some of its charm and a lot of its space by being jam-packed with Chelsea's proudest and loudest.
Back to the cauliflower. How good it is to see a list of side dishes that go beyond the usual (recite from memory) buttered spinach, steamed broccoli, mash and fries. Chef Ashley Hancill, who has cooked at the Villandry and Alistair Little, has put together a very come-hither selection of extras. My greedy little fellow-diners place orders for the cauliflower (£6 for four), roasted beetroots and parsnip mash (both £3) before they have even thought of their starters and main courses, so keen are they on a little bit on the side.
Such fresh thinking makes me hope the Pig's Ear could be more than just another wannabe gastropub. After all, the place has pedigree. One of the co-owners (Ollie Daniaud) was a partner in the Westbourne W2, while another (Jamie Prudom) ran Catch and the Water Rat.
The rest of the menu, while disadvantaged by not being side dishes, sounds equally splendid, with the likes of caramelised smoked eel with fondant potato, Yorkshire pudding with seared foie gras, braised salt- marsh lamb shanks with caramelised pearl onions and mash, and roast poussin on truffled leeks with pomme sarladaise. If they taste as good as they read, then we could really be on to something.
They don't, so I suppose we aren't.
As a starter, a whole round of goats' cheese served with a halved artichoke and slices of baked butternut squash (£7) is simply joyless. The cheese is dry, the artichoke is dry and the squash is dry and under-cooked. A few drizzles of reduced balsamic vinegar do little to lubricate proceedings. Such a missed opportunity - had the artichoke been olive-oily and giving, the squash roasted and caramelised, and the cheese warm and lightly melting, it would have been torn apart and devoured on the spot.
There are similar missed opportunities with the caramelised smoked eel with pomme fondant, wilted spinach and beetroot relish (£8). Sounds great, doesn't it? And the potato is rich and buttery, the spinach mossy and chlorophyllic, the relish wonderfully dense and intense - they'd have made great side dishes, come to think of it - but the main event is a few measly little scraps of bland, characterless, uncaramelised and unsmoky eel, just sitting there dragging everything down.
A safe selection of mainly French and Italian labels that runs up to an Antinori 1999 Brunello di Montalcino at £65 delivers what it promises, and a Domaine des Quatre Vents Fleurie 2002 (£23) is silky and juicy.
The rest of the meal does what it has to do without inciting any oohs and aaahs. Braised salt-marsh lamb shanks and mash (£12.50) taste like all the non-salt-marsh lamb shanks and mash I have ever eaten - good, squishy mash, with slightly tough, chewy shanks, the meat firm from too high a temperature.
Roast poussin (£14.50) also has tight meat, and tastes a little bland. But - there is a pattern here - the accompanying potatoes sarladaise are good and crisped, and a melting puddle of truffled leeks is so full-flavoured, it could be a side dish in its own right.
To finish, a little copper pot of autumnal fruit crumble brought bubbling hot straight from the oven is perfectly acceptable, without ever exceeding its brief.
At the time of my visit, the Pig's Ear has been open but a week, and is still offering its food at half price, so I feel guilty about reviewing it in its trial period, but not guilty enough to not review it. After all, for a very new dining-room, the kitchen is getting the pacing right, and the service is unusually unstarched and helpful.
At this stage, however, the cooking is inconsistent, and several dishes feel like assemblies of working parts rather than natural and sympathetic compositions. Perhaps the chef is working with a smaller budget than previously, because the produce isn't exactly bursting with flavour. Or perhaps it is just easier to get an aaaaaaaaaaah out of a side dish than a main course. After all, most of us order a main course based on the one tiny component of it we most feel like.
In all likelihood, the dining-room will become the next port-of-call of the drinkers downstairs; an adjunct to the bar, a little bit on the side rather than a destination in its own right. So, not exactly a pig's ear, but not a silk purse, either.
12 The Pig's Ear Dining Room 35 Old Church Street, London SW3, tel: 020 7352 2908. Lunch Saturday and Sunday and dinner Tuesday to Saturday. Around £85 for two with wine and service.
Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 ok 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
Second helpings: More superior sides
Anchor & Hope 36 The Cut, London SE1, tel: 020 7928 9898 The side dishes at the A&H list a duck-fat potato cake that is a worthy meal in its own right; fat, honest and enough to send an Atkinsite to hell and back in a single bite. Or you could go for the soupy lentils, or the hot buttered kale. Naturally, the full menu at this casual-chic gastropub is also full of things you really want to eat - so pace yourself.
The Dining Room 59A High Street, Reigate, Surrey, tel: 01737 226 650 "A little bit on the side" in Reigate now means ordering the roasted carrots with coriander and lime, or the braised savoy cabbage with smoked bacon form the side dishes at the ever-popular Dining Room. All accompany telechef Tony Tobin's main menu of likeable, eclectic food.
The Crabmill Preston Bagot, Claverdon, Warwickshire, tel: 01926 843 342 This 15th-century cider mill is now a comfortable and contemporary pub with three dining-rooms, in which you can order from an intriguing list of extras that includes cabbage, leek and peas; tomato, red onion and Parmesan, and even honey-roast ham. Better leave room for the mussels with apple, leeks and cider, or Sicilian mutton pie and sirloin steak, somehow.
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