Malcolm John’s empire continues to expand apace. This experienced chef/patron doesn’t do this by blowing up bloggers’ noses, but by picking undervalued locations outside Central London and delivering good French Bistro style food at a good price.
It’s what Café Rouge try to do but in a mass-market, faux-Francais way that hasn’t always been to everyone’s taste. So it’s rather apt that John’s new Fish And Grill in London’s Putney is actually based in what was once Café Rouge’s HQ building.
It’s a lot nicer now though. The dated decor of Rouge has been replaced by the new of Noir (Stendhal joke there for all you scholars) at great expense and it looks good. It’s non-cuisine specific, black leathery, chromy, glassy and urban smart.
The menu is familiar to anyone that has eaten chez John before in Chiswick, Croydon or Sutton. Plenty of meats and fresh fish that vary with the market. You can eye up the seafood on the main counter and it can balefully eye you back. We watch crabs being snapped up by lucky diners and the day’s sea trout for two seems to be selling well to Putney’s well-heeled locals.
The menu has plenty of food I like to eat with things like salt cod fritters, English asparagus, soft boiled duck egg and Hollandaise, classic French salads and Essex oysters just for starters.
Mains have plenty of what a French bistro should have, which is steak from the grill, label rouge poussins, veal chops, lobster and Chateaubriand with roasted bone marrow. This is definitely food for a local restaurant, a place to pop out to when cooking at home doesn’t appeal, but you don’t want to go off and worship at the feet of a cheffy either.
The set menu is the real surprise. £17.95 is good value for three courses in anyone’s book, even Stendhal’s, so we want to see if it can really deliver or whether compromise will creep in like a crab.
It seems not. P’s deep-fried sprats could perhaps have come out of the oil a tiny bit sooner, but there’s no real harm done. They’re like whitebait for elephants; crunchy, sweet and easy to eat, especially when smudged with the fine tartar sauce.
My cod cheeks are very enjoyable, the tempura batter crispy, light and non-greasy and the cheeks are as firm as a favourite godson’s. The ‘crushed pea aioli’ with them is not quite ideal – the peas aren’t actually crushed and their musket-ball presence in the pot means less aioli.
I don’t normally eat steak in a restaurant, unless it’s a steak restaurant obviously, but I was tempted. The waiter didn’t know what ‘a point’ meant, but I knew chef would and so it proved. It’s a nebulous cooking level for a steak I admit, not quite rare, not quite medium and not quite medium-rare either, but they got it right.
Chips cooked in beef dripping were great, a change from the usual supermodel thin fries and enjoyably seedy looking from the dripping as if Columbo had just cooked them. The green salad was dressed better than Gok Wang and the Béarnaise sauce had just the right amount of tarragon and tartness to meet the meat.
The steak, a rump, wasn’t Goodman’s good, but then nor was it Goodman’s price. It was bang on for the money though; juicy, pink with real flavour and almost enough searing outside. Steaks really need fierce heat for perfection and that ideally means a Josper grill.
P had a Grilled fillet of sea bream, with clams and monks beard and it was another dish that did right. Simple cooking doesn’t mean simple cheffing and the fish was all the better for not being fussed over. The sweet clams added a lift to presentation and taste and the monk’s beard, a Tuscan form of chicory, had a light kind of bitterness making it a sort of Alan Davies of vegetables. A selection of sea veg including samphire cost a bit extra but was worth it.
Chocolate mousse with shortbread and Strawberries with marshmallows and vanilla cream, showed that the kitchen is staffed by people keener on savoury than sweet, but by that point we were fairly stuffed anyway.
Wines? They have a reasonably wide choice and price range and plenty by glass and carafe, which is something you don’t see enough of. A 50-cl carafe is often all a couple needs, especially if one of them is driving a 1966 car, which tends to attract police attention at the best of times.
This isn’t a restaurant that wants to be a place of pilgrimage for foodies, but that’s fine by me. John keeps it simple, keeps it quality, keeps it good value and he will undoubtedly keep the locals coming back for more.