|Photo: Paul Winch-Furness www.paulwf.co.uk|
Thus, Bar Boulud is not a bar but a seriously upscale burger joint, Riding House Cafe (more of which at a later date) isn't a cafe but a buzzy all-day brasserie, and Charlotte's Bistro isn't a bistro but a...well, here's the thing. I'm not quite sure what it is, or rather, what it wants to be. Whatever it is, it's very good, with mostly terrific food, a pleasant room, efficient service and a clearly extremely talented - not to mention charming - chef. The problem, if indeed to anyone but me it is one, is that the whole is not quite the cohesive, knock-your-socks-off sum of its parts.
Just off the busy Chiswick High Road, a couple of minutes' walk from Turnham Green tube, Charlotte's Bistro comprises a small bar and a long, narrow sky-lit dining room furnished with dark, bare hard-wood tables and chic leather chairs. It reminded me immediately of a branch of Strada; no bad thing in itself - I'm a fan of the chain - but perhaps not the designer's intention. It could certainly serve as a casual, local bistro serving simple food in simple surroundings, but then the menu comes and you realise that what's on offer is rather more serious than that.
Descriptions of dishes consist of short, appealing lists of the principle ingredients and show a strong tendency towards the unusual but not obscure (violet artichokes, salsify), seasonal or regional British produce (English asparagus, Berkswell cheese) and Mediterranean and north African influences (jumbo couscous, tarragon polenta). Fruit, vegetables, flowers and seeds feature widely throughout. Diners lured in by the 'Bistro' name expecting steak frites are in for a not-necessarily-unpleasant surprise.
After some lovely home-baked bread including a particularly tasty rosemary loaf, and a couple of absolutely fantastic cocktails, best friend Andrew ordered the simplest sounding starter - English asparagus velouté, almond milk froth - while I decided to go for the only dish which didn't sound like it belonged on the menu: salad of ox tongue with Thai style raw vegetables, toasted peanuts, garlic and chilli. The velouté was a let-down; not at all velvety, and in fact rather thin, it lacked flavour to the point of insipidness, the almond milk foam adding nothing - Andrew described it, archly, as being 'as beige as the wall behind me'. Ouch. The ox tongue salad was better, interesting both in texture and taste, but like the soup felt rather timid, lacking tang and bite.
Mains were much better, aesthetically pretty and where starters had been on the bland side, full of flavour while light in a Mediterranean way. Roasted hake, Moroccan spices, chorizo, green olives had a lovely Andalusian feel to it and made me wonder why hake, so popular in Spain and so tasty, isn't more popular here. Accompanying salt-baked potatoes were wonderfully moreish, the saltiness balanced by some braised lettuce. Andrew's lamb rump and sweetbreads, garlic purée and fève beans was also superb, none of the strong flavours over-whelming the others and the meat beautifully pink. It was served, oddly, with chunky chips, which were good in themselves but seemed rather out of context with the rest of the dish.
The undoubted highlight of the meal came in the final course. A chocolate fondant served with salt caramel, tonka bean ice-cream and a sesame cracker was seriously perfect, the fondant oozing, the ice-cream gorgeously nutty and the cracker a smoky, savoury counter-point. Our other choice, nougat praline parfait, pistachio crumble and brandy-soaked warm chocolate madeleine was always going to pale by comparison; as it was, it was fine, although the presentation - the plate smeared with chocolate sauce, the parfait and madeleine forming small mounds - was...well I won't go all school-boy about it but let's just say there was a lot of brown. The crumble was delicious; the rest, not so much, but it still rounded off our meal nicely.
Chef Wesley Smalley (pictured) has done time under Jean-Christophe Novelli and Marco Pierre White, and the Michelin pedigree shows. But herein perhaps lies the difficulty with Charlotte's Bistro, namely that the chef and his abilities are rather larger than the restaurant and its aspirations. His style of cooking is, in its delicate complexity, more Gauthier Soho than local bistro and I wonder if the room needs rather more bells and whistles - or napery and ornament in this case - to do it justice.
Service could do to lighten up a bit too; staff are all lovely but the menu warns that 'mains ordered without starters are subject to a wait of between twenty to thirty minutes' and when we did order starters we were told that they would be 'five to seven minutes'. I think most diners these days know that food takes time to make and serve and don't need to be told as much. If Charlotte's wants to be a bistro - relaxed and informal - it needs to act it as well as think it. One thing that can't be faulted though is the pricing; starters are all £6-£8, mains no more than £17 and puds all at six quid or nine for cheese. The wine list is short-ish but with some interesting bottles; we enjoyed a 2008 Macabeo Torrelongares Cariñena (£20).
Overall, and on balance, I like Charlotte's Bistro very much; it's a nice place, the food was mostly excellent and if you get a chance to have a chat with him, you'll find Wesley Smalley to be a lovely chap who obviously cares a great deal for what he's doing. I was lured out to W4 by a pleasantly persistent PR, and would encourage anyone who tends to only eat out in the West End to think about making the trip to give Charlotte's a try. If however you are lucky enough to be a local, then get yourselves there without delay - it's already good, and can only get even better.
Charlotte's Bistro, 6 Turnham Green Terrace, Chiswick, London W4 1QP Tel: 020 8742 3590 http://www.charlottes.co.uk