RESTAURANTS A travel agent rather than a waiter may be needed to guide you round today's menus; Call it a big white trout with air miles, if you like but it's not every day I get to eat fish caught in Lake Malawi
Saturday 10 August 1996
When it's done well, eating out at home broadens the mind more effectively than an adventurous holiday. For the drawback with those cruises down the Nile, weekend breaks in Havana and east African safaris is that the food is often terrible. You're more likely to find yourself eating what we used to think of as international cuisine - chicken Kiev and the like - in a tourist hotel than you are in the smarter suburbs of London.
One of these, Barnes, has for several years been blessed with Sonny's - an exceptionally good restaurant which has consistently kept up with modern cooking. So, having heard that the owners of Sonny's had opened a new venue in SW15, I was determined to try their Phoenix Bar & Grill.
Our destination was hard to miss - dazzlingly white with a few diners sitting under huge umbrellas on the front terrace. Inside, it's tremendously cool without seeming clinical. Chatter was amplified by the bareness of the four interlocking rooms, decorated sparingly with black and white prints and Arne Jacobsen chairs of the sort Christine Keeler sat astride naked.
The cooking isn't just well travelled in the Voyages Jules Verne class, it's well informed, beyond the scope even of most specialist regional recipe books. Duck quesadillas (tortillas filled and fried); contadina (apparently like pizza base), with feta, olives, basil and cherry tomatoes are just two items which might need translating by staff who also knew that red tilapia is a fresh water fish from land-locked Malawi.
Some dishes derive from the chef's imagination and sense of what combines well: leek vinaigrette, crisp bacon and marinated anchovies, for example, rather than from recognised recipes. Others can be attributed to a particular location.
To start, I was more or less Morocco-bound. Sardine chermoula saute - a North African marinade of garlic, cumin, paprika, saffron, coriander leaves and lemon providing the crisp fried fish with a tangy juice. My travelling companion took the silk route east for a main course of slices of duck breast and bunches of pak choi in a lustrous broth. Most intrepid of all was the safari to sub-Saharan Africa. What exactly is red tilapia? Something huge, clearly, for I got only a tail section, the skin blackened and the flesh neither fatty nor too bony. It was served with slices of fried lemon, and rocket which had been given a fiery chilli boost. Call it a big white trout with air miles, if you like but it's not every day I get to eat fish caught in Lake Malawi. We met up over a Turkish-inspired order of sweet young vegetables in a room-temperature lemon juice marinade.
Everything, so far, had been delicious - taking the ideas and ingredients from a well-planned itinerary and cooking them with zest and clarity. The puds, as they're called, sounded like juvenile holiday treats. We passed on frozen pina colada and cold rice pudding. Our heads were turned by a strawberry and blackberry sundae which didn't taste as fruity as it looked. But orange tart, with chocolate marbled on top, was a grown- up pleasure.
Why, we decided, bother with the rigours of travelling any further afield when you can trek to Putney and eat far better for little more than the cost of a cab to Heathrow?
The Phoenix Bar & Grill, 162 Lower Richmond Rd/Pentlow St, London SW15 1LY (0181-780 3131) Open Sun-Fri, lunch, daily dinner. Three courses with wine, pounds 25-pounds 30. Sun brunch three courses and coffee pounds 16. Access, Amex, Switch, Visa
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