Friday 22 July 2011

Restaurant review: The Fox and Grapes, Wimbledon

The Fox and Grapes at Wimbledon is a strange, oddly old-fashioned gastropub.

It used to be a straightforward boozer, doing classic roast beef and all the trimmings Sunday lunches for the Labrador-and-striped shirt set. Then it was taken over by Claude Bosi, who started at Overton Grange near Ludlow and has two Michelin stars at Hibiscus, and now it’s a gastropub. The clientele is still a particular type of overfed man in bright striped shirt, with that kind of swept-back longish hair only the upper classes have. Rather jowly and solidly satisfied, with a thin harassed-looking wife, probably very nice, if orange. There were also lots of dogs around.

So it’s still self-consciously a pub. There’s a bar with taps, and a bloke behind it polishing glasses, but when you go up to the bar someone comes out from a side door and asks if he can help.

The furniture is higgledy-piggledy pub-like, no table cloths, and our table had the authentic greasy-sticky feel, not nice, but probably deliberate, my friend said.

I digress. This is a restaurant run by a garlanded chef, in a prime, the prime, position in some of the most expensive real estate in the world. Greasy tables and dogs notwithstanding, it had better be bloody good.

The wine list is short, unpretentious, imaginative, full of goodies, with prices so reasonable I thought I was still on the by-the-glass page. We had a very workable Pinot Grigio to start, the Bacaro, and the Domaine Isle St Pierre Rhone white, also very decent. Then a bottle of Musar Jeune 2007, a lovely fresh crunchy summer wine, and at under £30 I call that handsome.

I’m so pleased by wine list that I’m not going to complain about the way it was presented (this is where the pub/Michelin’d chef/Wimbledon stripey shirt thing gets itself all in a tizzy), the waitress showing me the bottle with full ceremony, then a sample, then the thumbs up and then she absolutely sloshes it into the glass, practically to the brim, as if she’s the landlord’s daughter in some zinc-topped bar in rural Aragon.

While the wine list is just unpretentious , the menu is studiedly unpretentious. ‘Ploughman’s Platter’,’Patrick’s burger’, ‘English Brown Ale Battered Scottish Hake and Chips, Mushy Peas.’ This is so carefully, almost arrogantly, a homage to every over-rated gastro-makeover in every corner of the country that again you think (fingering the tactile table), this had better be jolly good.

And actually it is. Apart from one of the starters, the Jersey Royal and Summer Nettle Soup with Rabbit Rilette Baguette, which looked like pondwater, and was over-salted, spuds overcooked, nettles giving nothing at all apart from the sludge-green pondiness, and presented on one of those really annoying faux-rustic wooden "platters" that must be a waiter's nightmare, the food was memorable.
My steak (cooked in the very of the moment super-hot Josper oven, as announced) was almost perfect (perfection being a ribeye my younger brother did for me on a barbecue in about 1998, in his back garden in Bath), perfectly rare, just resistant enough to the knife and teeth, lovely flamed flavour. And it sat on a bed of French beans that were so beautifully a point, so absolutely the right temperature, that there and then I relaxed. Anyone can bung a steak in a Josper oven and twiddle about with garnish, but only a Master can cook beans  like that.
 My friend’s Salad of Crispy Pork Belly and Black Pudding was tender, easily forked off the crackling, which itself was poised between crunchy and succulent, the black pudding pungent, dark and agreeably carnal.
Now hands up all those who have been disappointed by summer pudding? If I had to nominate a dish which sums up the early English summer in all its sharp,  tangy-sweet, juicy pregnant ripeness it would be summer pudding. But how often do you order it and find a soggy oversweet mess, or a criminal pallid dry thing with bits of white bread showing through the juice?
Write this down: if there is one reason for making a pilgrimage to the Fox and Grapes, London, SW, between late May and early August, it’s the summer pudding.
I could tell from the start it was a good one. Firm, the white bread soaked in juice but retaining its integrity, just the right size (about as big as an upturned yoghurt pot), the centre packed with fruit, sugared to just the right side of sharpness, not  running with juice but with a lovely dense moistness. Superb. It was like the scene in Ratatouille when the terrifying critic takes his first mouthful and is transported back to his childhood kitchen. This took me back to 1976, Clarks sandals and Aertex shirts.
And it knocked the Eton Mess into a cocked hat, and that wasn’t bad at all.
The coffee was good and hot. The bill? £127 for two. What do you expect from Wimbledon?

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