Foodies arriving at the Casa Cruz in Notting Hill may not realise it, but they're walking into a 20-year chunk of London's gastronomic history. In the 1990s, this big Victorian pile was a scabby boozer, reputedly the pub most often visited by felons straight after their release from Wormwood Scrubs.
In 1998, it was bought by Antony Worrall Thompson, the TV chef, who opened it as Wiz. It was a ground-breaking operation that anticipated several irritating restaurant trends: multi-national cuisine, communal ordering, sharing dishes and food that arrives on the table as soon as it's ready, whether you're ready or not. In 2002, he re-branded the place as Notting Grill. It provided the bons vivants of increasingly trendy W11 with seared meat until the recession hit like a crashing private jet and, in 2009, Worrall Thompson had to close it for financial reasons.
A year later, it re-opened as The Clarendon, a posh gastro-pub with a cocktail lounge. It was charming but everyone complained about its ruinous prices.
Now look at the place: it's the first London eating-house of Juan Santa Cruz, a Chilean-born, Boston-educated, former investment banker who has three Ritzy restaurants in Buenos Aires: Aldo's, Isabel and the original Casa Cruz. He – along with "a global team of designers, consultants and collaborators" – have thrown money at this old warhorse, and the results are extraordinary.
Walk in and you're wonder if you've come to the W11 branch of Spearmint Rhino. The walls are designed in floor-to-ceiling copper, burnished to a sexy incandescence. An oval cocktail bar features a sulky, cool-dude mixologist. Georgie Fame plays jazz-funk on the PA. As you look round for the dancers, the trophy head of a huge, antlered deer stares at you from the wall.
Past the glass-fronted wine racks, you climb a mirrored staircase on the plushest blue carpet you'll find outside a Mayfair escort parlour. Upstairs, more copper glows. Visit the loos, and you'll find yourself alarmingly reflected in a crazy procession of mirrors, like the end of Orson Welles's The Lady from Shanghai.
Senor Santa Cruz's obsession with copper is perhaps understandable as a loyal nod to his birthplace – Chile is the world's biggest producer of the stuff. But did he have to bring so much of it with him? It's a relief to escape to the chic roof terrace, with its brown wood seating (a little unyielding on the arse, without cushions) and its wire sculptures around which jasmine is being ambitiously trained.
The menus are clamped on to orange leather the precise shade of Hermes packaging, and offer dishes which are pleasingly simple: the charming, Old Etonian, French-Irish manager, Francois O'Neill, told us they use no butter or oil, the meat comes from Argentina via Belgium, and the main secret of the cooking is a Josper Grill.
My friend Isobel started with charred beetroots with horseradish: the beets served whole with their Triffid-like taproots on show. The texture was delicious, but the taste mainly horseradish. Ditto my raw tuna with avocado, wasabi and breadcrumbs – faint presence of al dente fish and soft pear, nice crunch of crumbs, an overwhelment of horseradish.
From three fish and three meat main courses, I had blackened chichen, dished up in hefty slices, the breast taut and lacerated with Cajun peppers and paprika, with a side-sauce of chicken stock, cream and what the waiter grudgingly called "mixed spices." I devoured it with charred broccoli, chilli and almonds. Isobel's cod was just-about-cooked, charred on one side, served with chopped smoked cauliflower and parmesan – deconstructed cauliflower cheese without the melted bit. "I've got smoky, charred, salty and spicy in this dish;" she said. "They dominate the tongue and mask all other flavours."
I had to agree. The charred broccoli was so heavily smoked, I felt as if I'd eaten a kipper with an 80-a-day Capstan Full Strength habit. Roasted domino potatoes made up for it –mandolined and roasted (with yummy burnt edges) in the Josper's depths until they resembled a burnt miniature pack of cards.
Puddings featured three different types of dulce de leche, the pan-Latino favourite made by boiling condensed milk. You could have it as ice cream or with chocolate gateau – the latter nicely balanced and, amazingly, not too sweet. I calmed down my smoky tongue with a plate of juicy melon, pineapple and berries.
There's lots to enjoy about the Casa Cruz, once you've got past the over-design of the dining-room. The food is gratifyingly simple and often delicious. If they could tone down their obsession with smoke, it would be a great improvement. Or was that (and the mirrors) an input from that "global team of designers, consultants and collaborators"?
Ambience (inside) **
Ambience (outside) ****
123 Clarendon Road, London W11 (0203 321 5400). Around £48 per person, before drinks and service
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