Restaurant review: Bianco 43

This article first appeared in the Croydon Citizen:

I lived in Croydon for over a decade and during that time, Mirch Masala on South End was a firm favourite. Great spicy grills in a no frills environment and BYO booze policy meant that I was there a lot, lateish back from the city, grabbing a quick, cheap, excellent dinner.

However, I moved back to Sutton, and Mirch Masala coincidentally moved down to Coulsdon at about the same time, leaving the restaurant vacant. Until, that is, a small chain of traditional trattoria, based around classic Italian cuisine and a wood fired oven, moved in. Croydonians should sing an Ave Maria in thanks: this is a seriously good restaurant, masquerading as a proto-chain of the Zizzi/Pizza Express format in something of a warehouse/barn type building.

Let’s start at the start. A short list of appetisers includes wonderful buttery green olives that I’d guess were something like nocellara. Better than anything that you’d get at a chain. They also have a short classically Italian cocktail list that included a very well made negroni. This made for an epic start that in Soho would have cost £20. At Bianco it was £10. As a brief aside, the negroni was very good, but where else in Croydon could you find a well-made one? Answers in the comments below would be appreciated.

For the same price as either Zizzi/Pizza Express, Bianco is a significant step up
Our party ranged widely across the menu and everything was fantastic. There was a delicate hand with the deep fryer for bone dry crispy courgette and calamari. A deep, rich, gooey melanze parmigiana was great comfort food, skilfully put together, with a confident hand on the seasoning of a brilliant tomato sauce. A selection of cured meat and a tomato/mozzarella salad showed the team source very high quality ingredients and have the guts to let them sing for themselves, adding context with lovely grassy olive oil and aged balsamic.

The mains kept up the quality. The wood-fired pizza adds heft to outstanding Neapolitan-style pizzas. A bit of char on the crust to combine with a lovely sweet tomato base and some great traditional toppings. My diavola was properly spicy but it also had real depth of flavour. The best pizza in the Cronx by a long way. For the same price as either Zizzi/Pizza Express, Bianco is a significant step up.

My wife said that her very generous portion of spicy sausage and mushroom pasta was great. Again, nowhere to hide with this. A deep rich sauce with fiery sausage and herbs. Could have been dull. At some well-known chains, or local trattoria, it would have been professionally bland. Here, it wasn’t.

Everyone else raved about their steak, chicken Milanese and lasagne. Six old mates – who due to careers, moving away and kids, don’t see as much of each other as we would like – spent less time talking than would have been expected, due to the quality of the food.
Desserts weren’t really investigated as we decided to give the all-Italian wine list some serious attention.

I’ve seen some TripAdvisor reviews suggest that the wine is expensive. I fundamentally disagree. Of course you can get a cheaper glass/bottle in a Wetherspoons (more on that later) but I actually thought that for the quality on offer, the wine was keenly priced. The Montepulciano was a great accompaniment to both meat and pizza; a classic spicy, savoury red.

Proper Italian dark roast espresso and a grappa provided a traditional end to a great meal. We walked out into the night very well fed and watered, all of us of like mind. This is a great Italian restaurant that might be part of a chain, but had the charm and quality of a neighbourhood favourite.

The variety on offer was reflected by the diverse range of parties dining in the restaurant
Bianco offers its customers either a cheap dinner out or something rather more special. You could pop in for a pizza and a beer and be out for less than £20. That will keep them in business on wet Wednesday evenings. Or you could range across the menu, drink a lot and spend twice that per head on a special occasion. This was in evidence with the range of parties in the restaurant. It was pretty diverse. Romantic couples; young and old; a few big tables. Lots of different accents. The place was rammed and I hope that they continue to be as successful.

A short postscript to this review is to note that the restaurant is next door to the Skylark. We met in there and then went back after the meal. It is a great example of how when a ‘Spoons is good, they can be very good indeed. Polite, engaged, efficient staff serve a great range of beer at an unbeatable price, served in a simple, comfortable pub. As is traditional when I’m out in Croydon, I was able to drink locally. Cronx American pale ale was a technicolor dream of hops and tropical fruit. Just the thing to finish off another great night in Croydon.


Chez Bruce: 21 years of making me feel like I’m at home

I noted a few days ago that it was the 21st anniversary of Chez Bruce’s opening. For those not in the know (eg those not of a foodie disposition living in London), CB started as a small local brasserie when Wandsworth Common wasn’t quite as leafy or as well-heeled as it is now. Now it’s bigger and grander, as many of us get as we get older and put on weight. Like CB however, I hope I manage to retain a lightness of touch.

CB has been given all sorts of accolades that it wears fairly lightly. It’s also been the place the various different Blewers have chosen to mark important dates, or celebrate something. The food is worthy of a great celebration. Outstanding old fashioned technique and an understanding of gastronomic history are combined with some surprisingly modern consideration.

CB lunch

First and foremost, the food is outstanding. Given all those accolades, such as a Michelin star, it should be; but I’ve been over 20 times and have never, ever, thought anything other than “wow” when contemplating the food. The familiar (my favourite chicken  / fois gras starter) is mixed with experimental, but it all delivers on flavour, finesse, but above all, comfort.

This thing for me about CB. It is deeply comfortable. So many “destination” restaurants feel like being in church. I once made a loud and frankly filthy joke in a Ramsay place because I couldn’t stand the hushed silence. There’s no need in CB, as there’s always a nice hum of happy chatter.

Given it’s antecedents and the local punters, this is perhaps not surprising, but take the standard of the food, then consider the sort of food that it is (rich / flavoured / filling), and then add genuinely warm and personable service; it’s not surprising we all seem ever so slightly smug to be there.

It doesn’t have to be this good. There are hundreds of restaurants in well heeled parts of London that have good food and smart staff that haven’t made it. Racine was a kindred spirit to CB. Whisper it, the food might have been just a fraction better on occasion. But Knightsbridge changed and it went the way of the dodo. So what is it about CB that has helped it last the test of time?

Location is always important. You don’t have to drive to get there as its right on a good train line. It’s also benefited from the gentrification of what was already quite a nice area in the first place. However for me, the main thing is that it is comitted to making every single person that comes into CB feel great.

There’s the top quality content that is almost unrivalled at the price point. Lovely bread etc. Interesting beer. Outstanding food. A wine list that should have evangelists it’s so long (but don’t worry, the team are imaginative and sensitive). Then there’s the people. CB has always had brilliant, engaging, friendly staff that give advice if asked and don’t push if they don’t.

I think my point is that CB is run and staffed by people that understand the concept behind the industry: “hospitality”. Treat guests as you would wish to be treated: with humour and grace and intelligence, and make sure they are fed well.

Frankly I wish I could get this at home, but with 2 small kids and both my wife and I working full time, this is a fantasy. CB therefore is the fantasy of being at home, and for that, and for 20 years of genuine pleasure, I thank  all involved.

La Rotisserie

Back to Paris on my own, but this time it was a warm night

I spent 3 days at the World Gas Conference last week working with clients. Professionally it was a good few days, doing what we at Ketchum do as well as anyone: helping our clients be better understood across a range of audiences.

This blog however isn’t going to be a professional matters. This is a restaurant review

The place I went to is a Paris institution. Part of Tour D’Argent, the place couldn’t be more French if it tried. Brusque, if not unfriendly staff, very traditional food and drink, in and out within 90 mins.

I’d had a few to decompress after the conference so I decided to skip the suggested coup de champagne as an aperitif and get stuck into the food ASAP. As often happens when you’re a PR at a conference I hadn’t eaten all day and was very hungry.

I looked at the menus, hummed and harred and ordered what I’d been dreaming about all day. Fois gras terrine, confit de canard, with a nice bottle of gigondas to wash it down with.

I wasn’t disappointed. The terrine was smooth, with a few nuts thrown in for texture. Big butch, slightly sweet fois gras flavour. Mouth filling and coating in a good way, the gigondas, slightly chilled due to the heat of the evening outside was a great companion.

On my own I avoided total levels of pretension and read the sports pages of the Guardian, and a thriller on my iPad, eschewing the temptation for either something in French or more intellectual. The food and restaurant, whilst not cheap wasn’t a place for posing. It was a place to enjoy incredible ingredients cooked with great technique and simplicity.

The duck was great. Crisp on the outside, melting in the middle. Outrageously good spuds. Again, and not surprisingly given where it’s from, the wine made a great companion. The natural black fruit flavours being a good pair with duck, with a bit of acidity cutting the fat, and a nice smoky richness bringing it all together. Top stuff.

A good espresso (not as common in Paris as one might hope) combined with a lovely fruity and soft Chateau du Breuil calva rounded off a thoroughly civilised dinner for one on a warm Paris evening.

A slow walk back down the Seine via Notre Damme completed what was a lovely evening.

It’s nights like this that make me realise how very lucky I have been. Of course I have worked hard to develop my career, but what if I’d turned left instead of right somewhere along the road? What if Kirsty wasn’t as understanding of the demands of the job?

Something I’ve found over the past few years is that we discount luck at our peril. I’ve been occasionally lucky in my life and career, and I was both lucky and privileged to enjoy a meal like I did in a warm Parisian evening last week.

The Wallington Arms

A few months ago, Kirsty pointed out to me with some excitement that an old dive of a pub in Wallington (S London suburban town where I grew up) had been bought by the Antic pub chain, which we knew well from various places in both SW London and the City.

This meant Wallington was finally going to get a gastro type boozer that would also have great real ales. I’ve always been amazed that Wallington, a fairly mixed area that has a pretty significant affluent population lacked such a thing. Lots of 20-30 somethings get on the train every weekend to go to this sort of place in balham or clapham.

So what’s the place like? After a little while getting comfortable in its skin and building a new kitchen, it’s very much the standard Antic proposition. Good food, probably that bit better than it has to be; well kept local ales and some good American craft beer as well.

The beer and food combo really does deliver. Great Sunday lunches, with particularly good Yorkie puds and very good roast potatoes. The starter of crispy squid and carvalo Nero shows the kitchen has more skill than usual in a pub. Bouncy, dry, crispy squid with punchily flavourful garlic mayo. Not usually found in Wallington. Nice clean pint of Cronx (I’ve had lots of good small brewery beer) and then a Lagunitas to make sure I snoozed well when we got home.

I really like the chain and the Wallington Arms delivers on my experience, which goes back to the EDT, Tramshed and Balham Bowls Club about 8 years ago. I wonder whether the move to Wallington (and Bromley) is about following their customers from used to drink further into London (like me) that have bought houses to settle down and have kids in suburban London where there is far less competition for this sort of proposition, but plenty of market potential.

You either like Antic pubs, or you don’t. I know people that think they’re just as soulless as Weatherspoons or any other branded pub / restaurant chain. They think the artifice of bric-à-brac, books, mis matching furniture etc is just a branding affectation.

I think that’s a massively snobbish attitude that only considers part of the Antic offering. The beer and food are great. They’re normally run by smart young(ish) men and women who do a very good job. There for a chat if you want, leave you alone if you don’t. Passionate about their job, because that enthusiasm is shared by their customers. Yes I’d prefer more comfortable chairs, and maybe a bit more light, but it’s a small price to pay.

The Wallington Arms is one of the best boozers in the area. As is the case with the Sun in Carshalton it is great for a swift half, a proper session, a light meal or a banquet. When I’ve been it’s been child friendly, but I doubt there are many kids there on a weekday night slurping down Lagunitas.

Well done guys, great boozer. I’ll be back.