Whipped pigeon pea lentils. Now, I’m not sure if there’s dead pigeon in the wonderful bowl of goo sitting in front of me, or if there’s such a thing as a pigeon pea lentil, quite frankly I’m too lazy to check, and quite frankly, I really don’t care. The smoky humous-like substance and the poppadum-like bread with which you were supposed to shovel it into your mouth, was utterly gorgeous.
The unusual and nuanced flavour was an unexpected treat. It was the first of many.
The next was a beautifully balanced yogurt croquette. The croquette itself was fine. It was more a triumph of technique over enjoyment. The bits and bobs that surrounded it on the other hand were truly triumphant. There was a rich earthy beetroot purée, lightly roasted broccoli, slithers of pickled onion and caramelised mini beets – all of which complemented each other perfectly. As the plate was cleared it still contained some croquette but none of the other stuff.
Mrs. A and I took an alfresco table and received a drinks menu that guaranteed over-imbibing. The cocktails were inventive and the wine interesting – but not at the expense of enjoyment.
The food menu was written with succinct seductiveness. Every description was exciting but left enough ambiguity as to be intriguing. It took great restraint not to order celeriac schnitzel, butter chicken liver terrine or air-dried lamb loin, but we had more than enough on our… um… plate.
The first of the many dishes we did order was Escargot gratin. Ooh, Escargot, I here you cry, snails in garlic, how very contemporary, why the hell did you select that when you had all those other enchanting options? I’ll tell you why. These snails had traded-up. No longer were they cocooned in their primitive house of cheap brittle shell. They were living it up in Southern-European glamour courtesy of a soft, succulent pasta shell and a stunning lightly curried cream (of which there was nowhere near enough). It was incredibly imaginative and yet made perfect sense. Like, adding salt to caramel, adding snail to pasta must be added to the why-did-no-one-think-of-this-sooner list of epicurean invention.
Pork-stuffed calamari is a winning formula that made it into that list long ago. I’d have happily demolished the gorged baby squid even without the adornment. But when you sit anything on top of sherry broth (which is as good as it sounds), prop it up with wedges of salty bacon (of which Mrs. A stole nearly all) and sprinkle it with buttery pistachio (which were a really clever addition), it’s raised to an uncommon level style, sophistication and originality. This was the dish of the day.
According to the press release, Pondiis “an ode to Pondicherry”, the restaurant takes its cues from the old French colonial settlement in India, with plates taking inspiration from both cuisines. This is an unnecessary fabrication that the owners would do well not to labour. Pondi, in fact, has a wonderfully nomadic vibe. There were flavours of Bali in the calamari, The Cotswold in the shepherd’s pie (which I’ll come onto in a second) and Thailand in prawn dish, which was next to arrive.
Prawn Etouffee with milk bread French toast and saffron lentil gravy was a dish that defied both classification and criticism. Etouffee, a roux based sauce had, in this case, the depth and complexity of a well-made bouillabaisse. It surrounded a few meaty prawns, which in turn were hidden under fragrant fennel and spring onion. The triumph of the dish was not just it’s flavour but it’s lightness. Despite the heart of the dish being a massive hunk of bread sodden with rich sauce, it was still spongy and light.
We finished with Shepperd’s pie (there was absolutely no room for dessert). There was nothing in the dish that remotely resembled a shepherd’s pie (there’s no lamb for a start), but what we did have was still a carnal delight. Three small baked potatoes with their innards replaced by deeply rich oxtail ragu. Around which were slithers of blue hanger steak. It was a confident dish that had nothing to hide or prove.
I’ve enjoyed every visit to Brut! (and there have been quite a few) and Black Salt is a revelation, but their sister delivers something more. She’s slightly more sophisticated; she’s learnt from mistakes and therefore has a few saucy tricks up her sleeve. She tickles and teases in a manner that’s exciting but decidedly grownup. You can go in and have 90 minutes of unadulterated gastronomic fun – maybe even two hours if you indulge in a bit more foreplate (see what I did there?!) – regularly and never get bored. In short, she’s the perfect neighbourhood restaurant.
There was one major problem with the whole evening. At no point was the small restaurant ever more than half full. Quite frankly that’s a travesty. This cool little corner of the world deserves to be a lot busier than it currently is.