The Wandering Palate Restaurant of the Year 2013 - The Quality Chop House, Farringdon Road, London
Admittedly, arriving at the ‘Wandering Palate Restaurant of the Year’ is essentially informed subjectivism; there is no avoiding the emotional and mental reactions of the individual; you will simply have to trust my palate and meta-ethics.
This recognition is also a statement of where I see certain dining trends are heading and how the proprietors of this establishment have foreseen and interpreted this extremely well. That said, what may be good for London may not be relevant to Osaka, suffice to say it needs to be viewed in context.
The way I see it, for the greater good—of eating—foam and purees are out, as are 15 course degustation menus, but unpretentious, ungarnished, unadulterated wholesome cooking is in.
Furthermore, slow braises, one-pot casseroles and cooking of larger, whole bits has been rediscovered, that is a whole leg or shoulder of lamb, a side of venison or a rib of beef roast, the whole duck or pheasant, a whole king salmon or snapper, are back on the menu and some of my favourite restaurants and chefs such as Josh Emett at Rata and Nicolas Poelaert at Brooks along with The Quality Chop House are championing this natural and companionable cuisine.
Personally, I feel many chefs have been fussing around with food to make it individual-plate appealing for way too long; over-working, over-garnishing and over-pricing and all to satisfy the demands of the fickle dining public, many who see ordering the same dish on an a la carte menu a big no-no and depreciating the dining experience.
In that sense, it’s not entirely chef’s fault, who have been obliged to cater to the trends moreover, somewhat pressured in their creativity in this hyper-competitive business. There is also a growing divide between ‘eating houses’ and ‘proper restaurants’ with a bourgeoning emphasis on affordable, entertaining in slick establishments where the priority is having fun before the food—which I don’t have a problem with!
I also have to declare I am a big fan of communal dining and socializing over a meal, and whilst I don’t want to ostracize couples dining, this style of eating often (though not exclusively) lends itself to group therapy of four or more people. Even better, I really enjoy turning up at a restaurant and don’t have to look at a menu or agonize over what everyone’s going to order (an occupational hazard) with the chef inspired by the best of what is seasonally available and the meal is designed/set to achieve both balance and gastronomic stimulation—in other words, just feed me.
We arrived at The Quality Chop House on a warm Wimbledon summer evening with premeditated expectations, having read all the reviews, but it also seemed like the perfect venue to catch up with a good English (foodie) friend from Singapore, now residing back in London and deeply ensconced in the food and theatre scene.
We were a table of three with my 9 year-old daughter accompanying me on field assignment, or something of a camouflage of work and summer holidays where she and I disappear ‘Wandering’ around the world. I emphasize this as our dining experience here was so inclusive with the way both front of house and kitchen embraced her (youth) and a nut allergy with genuine regard, and frankly we enjoyed the most affable and professional service I have encountered in memory.
It could be that we are not used to such attentive service, coming from Singapore, but I would say in our three week trip around England that encompassed many Michelin stared restaurants, exclusive lodges and top hotels, the service at The Quality Chop House trumped them all—even the Connaught Hotel, as much as it was very accommodating.
It is possible that the service experience here might be misread by some diners, not quite grasping the intimacy and informality or natural flow; you have to engage in plentiful communal conversation to get the best out of the place, and that applies equally to agreeing on facets of the set menu—they write three different menus here a day based around the very best produce delivered that very morning—and the incredible wine offerings, whether it be by the glass and delving deep into the list.
I’m labouring the point as I can envisage some people not quite getting it, as in this is not your conventional type of restaurant, indeed it is it’s unconventionality that is so refreshing; its unorthodoxy so appealing. Just discussing the menu alone was so invigorating, listening to front of house and partner, Josie Stead (ex-Heston Blumenthal’s, Dinner), as she explains the seasonal merits and attributes of the artisan produce that has just come through the door, embellishing on the idiosyncrasies and provenance, our palates salivating and dopamine receptors heightened in anticipation of the meal ahead.
Kicking off with a generous platter of Basque charcuterie with some seriously good sourdough bread and wickedly creamy butter and sea salt flakes, our bread basket replenished several times, we were already rolling our eyes in replete by the time a plate of grilled sardines from off the coast of Cádiz arrived; so saline and palate teasing, and washed down with a glass of Manzanilla Sherry that we quickly regained our appetite.
Our main course was lamb; and I know that’s going to sound pretty humdrum, but the large wooden chopping board now positioned in the middle of the table was laden with three different cuts of Welsh Lamb, a slow roast leg, a braise of shoulder and part of that Confit, amounting to a Henry VIII proportioned feast of wonderfully diverse flavours and textures that exemplified the different cooking techniques.
Like her dad, my daughter has a very good appetite (ask Nick Lander) but I have never seen her devour so much lamb moreover the accompanying and totally addictive roasted Jersey Royals liberally sprinkled with salt flakes; there is no other potato on this planet so thoroughly good—a Grand Cru Potato.
We then paused for a quite a while, ordering another bottle of the excellent Savigny-lès-Beaune Les Narbantons 2001 (the maker I cannot remember) settling back in our seats and lingeringly nibbling away at selection of English cheeses, and more of that marvellous sourdough bread.
Actually, we are seated on benches, to which there is much ado in all the reviews on The Quality Chop House I have read. Personally, I did not find the booth style bench’s uncomfortable at all and I am considerably large chap, although I did have a whole bench to myself!
It is without question an utterly conducive dinning space that has a perennial 140 year history of feeding people, or the Victorian working class as it were, when it first opened, and you can sense it has good bones and even though it’s assuredly gone through several décor reincarnations over the decades, the new owners have tastefully restored it to its original livery. Least that’s what it feels like to someone who comes from a country (New Zealand) that is only a few decades older than this restaurants lifespan and there’s a somewhat reassuring feeling knowing this booth and bench has seen over a Century of eating pleasure.
Another majorly import criteria the Quality Chop House fulfils commendably is the wine list. There are too many restaurants that fail in this vital facet of the dining experience with pedestrian selections and unreasonable mark-ups, particularly when it is obvious there is no tangible wine programme or talented professional sommelier. A wine list is not there to just pay the rent moreover the dining public have become very wine savvy; restaurants that neglect to embrace this, in my view, fail.
Whilst relatively concise, the wine selection at The Quality Chop House has far more breadth, depth and interest than many Michelin Stared restaurants with their predictable wine list tomes intimidating and just not user-friendly.
You can sense the emphasis is as much on wine as it is food and their list layout and short wine descriptors are is painstakingly thorough, and the flow of the list and the quirky special sub-sections, currently featuring ‘Great Winemakers’ or varietal themes like “Zinfandel But Not As You Know It” with the wines from Turley Wine Cellars, or “Calera Californian Pinot” with a selection of older vintages from Calera, and “Big, Bold and Good With A Chop - Here are a few punchy reds sourced from some of the finest red wine producing regions in the world. None of them possess a great deal of subtlety, but they are all big, beefy, warming and ideal for the winter months. They should go nicely with aged meat, game birds etc. - and some English cheese if they make it that far”
The 125 strong selection is as eclectic as it is globally diverse—from Domaine Tempier Bandol, Provence, France, to Churton Viognier, Marlborough, New Zealand, from ‘Poema’ Frankuska Vinarija, Negotin, Serbia, to Fairview The Beacon Shiraz from Paarl, South Africa, with a focus on artisan producers and small parcels from top producers, “some of the world’s best wines and winemakers (some of which are only available in the UK on this list) at particularly good prices”.
Indeed, the wine prices here are more than reasonable at a restaurant level and particularly so with both older vintages of rare bottles and magnums, but also many bargains in the lower prices points with an intriguing selection of affordable ‘wine discoveries’—that is I had never heard of most of these winemakers little lone some of the regions, which is rather embarrassing for a veteran sommelier who thinks he’s knows a thing or two.
I felt better after reading a comment from Jancis Robinson, whose son, Will Lander (dad being FT Food Writer, Nick Lander) is the other partner in the Quality Chop House ownership and talent. “Just been to our son's Quality Chop House for our first lunch and dinner and am astounded by how relatively few of the wines on the list I know - and by how little Will has consulted his parents on the whole enterprise. Don't know whether to be proud of or offended by his 100% independent wine notes - which are rather good! The former I think on balance.”
This is the sort of eclectic, quirky, enlightening and cultivating wine list that really impresses me and the effort and energy that goes into it is tangible—and most palatable. There are many wines by the glass that you can experiment with, or finish with, as I did, enticed by the magnum of (obscure Spanish red that I can’t remember) that they had opened for exploratory reasons, galvanizing both my evening and how polished and consummate the wine service and programme is here.
We had had a faultless and most enjoyable evening cemented by the whole experience being very affordable. If you consider the four course set menu at £35 per person is about the equivalent of a main course price in Singapore, or Sydney these days. And with so much depth and diversity in the wine list at nominal prices, the Quality Chop House overall is exceptionally good value, and I wonder if you accounted for 140 years of inflation, how that would compare back in 1869 with the local residents and London’s literary elite alike sharing the booths and enjoying "a plate of meat, bread and half a pint of ale for six pence".
Furthermore, you can eat even more affordably and impromptu in their wine bar, which has a daily changing menu for lunch (12 to 3pm) and dinner (6 to 11pm) where you will get a chop, along the lines of a Middle white pork cutlet, or something heartier like Galloway Faggot. The wine bar is actually open all day from 12 to midnight with charcuterie, Neal’s Yard cheese and cakes served all day and with its equally inviting ambience and the brilliant selection of wines by the glass, I would be several times a week—it would definitely be my ‘local’— if I lived in London.
I also believe their Butchery and Shop next door will open this week, where you will be able source a chop and more—charcuterie, cheese, homemade pies and preserves, and even you daily milk and bread.
There is no question food and produce in England is in full renaissance and London arguably the most exciting restaurant city in the world at the moment. Not only are Londoners spoilt for choice, they are enjoying some the best value, wholesome cooking ever, or least since 1869 when Rowland Plumbe first open the doors at The Quality Chop House.
I applaud, with a standing ovation, the rebirth of this wonderful dining space and the energy and flair that Will Lander, Josie Stead, Chef Shaun Searley and their team have injected into the English dining scene and most of all, having the courage and vision to challenge the status quo and bring back communal British dining.
My dining year in 2013 was totally diverse in countries and cuisines, from hills of Kyoto to South Pool, Devon, from Wellington, New Zealand to Hong Kong, but nothing inspired me more than my dining experience at The Quality Chop House. It pains me in a way that I don’t live down the street, that I can’t drop in and check out what’s on the menu every day but I am seriously looking forward to my next visit, hopefully on cold autumn day, with the game season in full swing.
The Quality Chop House http://thequalitychophouse.com
92-94 Farringdon Road London EC1R 3EA, Tel: 0207 278 1452
Online reservations through Toptable