‘And who are you meeting this evening?’ asked the chap on reception at the Sugar Club when I bowled through the door, doing my best Margaret Rutherford impression with umbrella, coat and handbag all at full tilt. ‘Humph, young man,’ I replied. ‘Actually, someone is meeting me and the booking is in my name.’ How politically incorrect to assume that a woman arriving in a restaurant on her own should necessarily be the guest, not the host. Or maybe I just looked impossibly glamorous and sufficiently decorative to be arm candy. Sadly, I think close-surveillance; care in the community is probably more likely. I sat at the bar alone waiting for my friend, and got out ‘Atonement’ to stop me feeling like a hooker, or at least an illiterate hooker. I asked for a glass of champagne, as you do, ‘house will be fine,’ I said, as you don’t unless you’re cheap, but then the bartender started reeling the labels off and since I couldn’t hear a word he mumbled, I was quickly back in Margaret Rutherford mode – deaf and accent-challenged. Pretending nonchalance I waved airily, but my casual attitude cost me dearly when I later discovered on perusal of the bill that the fizz was Veuve Cliquot at £12.50 a glass. Luckily I didn’t realise this until the end of the meal when, imbued with feel good fullness, I didn’t care. As much.
This was Peter Gordon’s (now of Providores) first posting after he moved up west and up market from the restaurant’s original site in the heart of drug land in the All Saints Road. As good food students will know he now has his own place, Providores, in Marylebone, and since 1999 the Sugar Club’s kitchen has been ruled by David Selex, not to it’s detriment. The menu continues to feature inventive fusion food and after a long absence, I’ve discovered that it’s still one of the few restaurants that gives me a bit of a lift, and a thrill of excitement whenever I walk in. It’s one of those noisy, putty-walled cathedrals from the pack ‘em in, make ‘em pay era. Previously I have always sat in Siberia, downstairs, but on this visit, downstairs was closed and upstairs was just over half full. The post Valentine February slowdown is so beneficial for the non-cool amongst us who, finally, get to sit with the glitterati. Lighting is warm and suitably muted – like just waking up after a long siesta haze, before you open the curtains, and there’s a fantastic full plate glass wall showcasing the restaurant’s chic plainness to the passing public..
My friend was bewildered by the menu, but determined to try something ‘different’ not an onerous task in this establishment: salmon, foie gras nori roll with yuzu dipping sauce – or tandoori spiced rabbit with peshwari naan, green papaya salad and cucumber mango raita, perhaps? She hesitated over the good old skippy salad – spicy kangaroo with mint peanuts and lime-chili dressing which I warned her it would be very rare. ‘Yes we do serve it raw, I mean rare,’ said our waiter. ‘Nuff said – instead she had the least challenging dish on the menu - grilled scallops with sweet chili sauce and crŹme fraiche. I had coconut soup with galangal, which sounds suspiciously like something played by Cate Blanchett in Lord of the Rings, or at least some other flaxen haired Goliath with good backlighting. Of course it’s only a root from the ginger family and the soup, though the menu promised plural chicken dumplings in fact had only a singular dumpling, which sorely missed its brethren. It was by far the most interesting addition to what was, frankly, an otherwise fairly lacklustre broth with a few noodles doing exactly what noodles are supposed to do in soup, though steadfastly defying all attempts to chop stick them out. Not a good look when you’re trying to look like one of the uberhip cognoscenti.
We both chose fish to follow – roast sea bass with black cabbage, deep-fried tofu and harissa for me and pan roasted brill with crushed charlotte potatoes in a green pea broth with hijiki (seaweed) and some neon pink pickled bean shoots. Both were superb and the addition of a helping of their famous mustard mash made the whole experience perfection a plate. Heaven surely features mashed potatoes at every meal. The fanciful could splash out with Roast Trelough duck served with wok fried salsify and lotus root in a star anis broth with green mango salsa – but fish, I’m afraid is thanks to the tyranny of girlie dining. You can’t be seen to order the foie gras and chips with extra chips on the side when you’re eating with literary London’s answer to Elle McPherson. Thank god she wanted pudding. I was thinking sultana and hazelnut pudding with mirin-toffee sauce and ginger poppy seed ice cream. She was thinking – you mad, fat, old trout. Probably.