I've been accused, once or twice, of being an unadventurous traveller. "Is there any danger of your reviewing a restaurant outside the immediate environs of south London," asked a recent, sarcastic email, "where, I understand, you were born, grew up and have always lived? Would you like to try somewhere further afield? Not outside London, obviously, since that might fatally disorientate you. But perhaps some other bit of the metropolis?"
Unable to stand any more insulting missives (who am I, Michael Winner?), I travelled miles into London's mystic west in search of enlightenment, at Kitchen W8, off Kensington High Street. The name has a blank, Zen-like functionalism about it; I like the way it doesn't mention food. I like the simplicity of the big round mirrors on the stylised wallpaper. I like the fact that it's only four minutes' walk from the offices of The Independent.
Will it become the newspaper staff's new canteen? What does one want from a neighbourhood eaterie? First, it should seem busy. You'll want to eat there if everyone seems to want to eat there. And on a rainy Wednesday night in February, it's completely full: well-dressed middle-aged couples, a table of Kensingtonian youths just back from the slopes, a French couple discussing philosophy like characters in an Eric Rohmer conte moral. Second, it should be cosy, the restaurant equivalent of an armpit to nestle in. Kitchen W8 isn't cosy. The décor is rather stark, the walls mostly windowless and there's a curious angled mirror over one table, reflecting the bald pates of the patrons. But it's all indefinably cool.
Third it should be good value. Our charming maitre d' assured us that they offer two sittings of dinner because some people drop in at 6.30pm for a snack and are gone by 9pm. But with most starters costing £8.50 and main courses mostly north of £15 (rib-eye steak is £19.50) it's hardly snack territory. Fourth it should be friendly, and there Kitchen W8 scores very highly. The waiters knew their stuff, service was fast, the maitre d' beamed, the wine waiter offered us glasses of Malbec and Carmenere to try, gratis. Everyone who came near us seemed to have a degree in Being Nice Without Trying Too Hard.
The menu (says the website) "essentially ... combines a modern English style with a French soul," which borders on the meaningless. I didn't find anything very French about my date Sarah's chicken and mushroom ravioli – a single, huge raviolo under a liquid shroud of mushroom cream, more velouté than sauce. It was light and utterly delicious, little mushroom shreds bursting out of the delicate pasta. Even the froth on the top didn't stir me to the usual (frothing) rage. My thinly sliced smoked eel with grilled mackerel, leek hearts and sweet mustard didn't reek of Gallic endeavour either. It was laid out in a rectangle of orange, white and brown, as pretty as an English watercolour, the eel shaved so wafer-thin it melted on my fork, the tiny bits of fish beautifully grilled. It was, in fact, so ethereal, it hardly counted as food at all. Extremely pale, pre-Raphaelite girls on a starvation diet would love it; chaps generally expect something more substantial when they order smoked eel.
There was nothing girly about my main-course Pork cheeks with black pudding. It was mildly disgusting to think I was eating both the face and dried blood of a pig – but the cheeks were cooked to a densely flavoured succulence, the quartet of puddings offered a sultry counterpoint and a bed of pearl barley, cooked in pork stock with a mirepoix of celery, carrots, onions and bay leaf, was damned good (and damnably masculine). The only trouble was a spoonful of pumpkin in the middle of the barley, which seemed to have strayed in from another dish.
Sarah's John Dory was less successful, surrounded by apricot-hued slabs of pumpkin. "The fish is delicious, perfectly well cooked, but this plateful is too sweet," she said. I had to agree. Pumpkin purée doesn't do a thing for this kind of white fish. As though recognising it was a rather bland plateful, the chefs included a curious vol-au-vent, a pastry bullet containing some concoction of shallots. It came and went, a little pointlessly.
The puddings, at £6.50, were wonderful. Rhubarb fool came in a large tumbler stuffed with goodies, surmounted by crushed amaretti biscuits and blood-orange sorbet, nicely combining tartness and sweetness. My crème fraiche tart was a little characterless, but a wallop of lemon curd cream left me sated.
Kitchen W8 is a joint venture between Philip Howard, star chef at The Square in Mayfair, and Rebecca Mascarenhas, the warm heart behind Sonny's in Barnes. What they've brought to my professional backyard is a little too pricey and plain to be a neighbourhood drop-in site. But the food and the welcome make it a must-consider for anyone in Kensington with something to celebrate.
Kitchen W8, 11-13 Abingdon Road, London W8 (020-7937 0120)
About £110 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: Kitchen sync
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