Putney and Lower Richmond Road donÕt immediately romp to the forefront of your mind as the idea partners in the three-legged Italian Restaurant race. Furthermore, if youÕre looking for porn-sized pepper grinders and waiters crooning ciao bella whilst doing the dance of the seven white napkins, then go straight back to Mayfair, and collect £200 from the cashpoint as you pass Go.
What you do get at The Phoenix Bar and Grill in Putney is a well-hung (in the art sense), super smart, reasonably priced neighbourhood restaurant whose modern British menu has been revitalized by the Italian food of star chef Franco Taruschio, formerly of the Walnut Tree in Abergavenny. In my experience itÕs never hard to keep a man out of the kitchen Š just say Ōwashing upÕ and heÕs off in the opposite direction. However, in Mr TÕs case, even after 38 years sweating over a hot stove, retirement lost its lustre in less than a year and, like Arnie, heÕs back, risen from the ashes as The PhoenixÕs consultant chef, while Simon Kealy, another Walnut Tree graduate, has been installed as head chef.
I should admit straight off that I know the owners of The Phoenix, which ordinarily would be a good reason not to review it. Criticism and good-acquaintance mix about as well as silicone and air travel Š but having schlepped to the new regime at The Walnut Tree in Wales after Mr Taruschio left, I have no intention of missing the great manÕs food when itÕs available just the other side of the Thames. So, buckle up.
Now, in last weekÕs column, I hinted at the horrors of competitive under-eating amongst women of a certain shape. ItÕs the ŌIÕll just have waterÕ syndrome that makes eating with gusto a crime punishable by a lifetime membership to Weight Watchers. Thankfully my film-director friend, Nell, is not one of those food phobic, picky women. SheÕs the ideal dining partner Š and not afraid to share three starters with extra calorific carbohydrates on the side. Straight off she told the waiter decisively: ŌIÕll have a vodka and tonic Š fill it right to the top of the glass please.Õ
This was followed by a reread of the menu more thorough than we ever give our respective projects in the natter-fest that purports to be our writerÕs group.
The menu is heavily Taruschio-influenced, with the welcome
appearance of some old favourites like Vincigrassi maceratesi Š an 18th
century recipe like a sumptuously rich lasagne with truffles, and available
either as a starter or a main course. As well as classics such as ribeye steak
with chips and bˇarnaise, there are others Eastern twists thanks to Mr TÕs
adopted daughterÕs Thai heritage including crispy crab pancakes and goujonette
of cod with Thai dipping sauce.
With my tendency to eat backwards, my eyes naturally fell straight to the puddings Š the promise of semi freddo of ricotta or pannacotta with orange salad and honey baked figs, beckoning like a siren from the basking rocks of Porkytown. But first, a stuffed courgette flower - one of the most ludicrously frivolous things you can do in the name of food. The almost translucent bell-shaped flowers are so tender and fragile, like the skin on a babyÕs eyelid, and then along comes someone with too much time on their hands and the bright idea of stuffing them full of spinach and cheese before deep frying. But of course itÕs divine and decadent and totally delicious. IÕve always maintained that life is too short to spend stuffing veggies, but for courgette flowers IÕd make an exception.
My salad with asparagus, purple sprouting broccoli, beetroot and olive dressing was a fine mix of complex flavour and crunchy texture with just enough going on to entertain the palate, but our third starter - the trenette, a slim noodle-like pasta, entwined with barba di frate, long green tendrils similar in taste to seaweed, and served with crispy prosciutto was the trioÕs real winner.
Main courses were similarly successful Š okay Š not from the gushingly exuberant school of full-blown Italian cookery, but well bred, polite and well proportioned. I had brodetto Š Adriatic fish stew with mussels, whelks, squid, sea bass and red snapper swimming in a rich, carmine broth and topped of with a pair of langoustine laid like crossed swords on the cornucopia of fish. A side helping of polenta, stolen from another main course Š roast chump of lamb Š was almost obligatory given the massive mopping up operation necessary to plumb the depths of the broth. However, it was fairly dry and dense on its own - more reminiscent of tepid savoury bread pudding rather than the melting, unctuous polenta I was expecting. Nell had an achingly rich bowl of sweetbreads with pungent wild mushrooms and a Marsala cream sauce.
Oh yes, the woman has balls. IÕve always said so.