Intimidated? Not easily. Yet there have been occasions. I recall a stay in a Mayfair apartment with our own private butler. “Order me a cab for Loftus Road.” An eyebrow-raised response: “Might that be the soccer stadium? Will sir be requiring a scarf and rattle?” Thankfully, in the midst of the away support, you are enveloped in a communal support system. Buoyed by some Blackburn Rovers umbilical cord. There’s not quite the same safety net when you are dining solo in the capital.
I tell myself I’ve alway found it a test of a restaurant how they handle a ‘Gourmet No Mates’. Maybe they’ll mistake me for a Michelin inspector and either up their game… or piss in my potage. But that’s all just fanciful. For my lone foray to Fallow in the autumn I was ushered to the chef’s table counter, as requested, and soon discovered I wasn’t alone in being alone. Next door, from Japan, was a fellow seeker after the sustainable culinary holy grail at London’s hottest restaurant. Just off Haymarket, it was bustling front of house and in the open kitchen right before me. To be on the safe side I ingratiated myself with the Irish sommelier by ordering a palate-cleansing pint of Guinness. Among the occupied throng I felt welcome and the whole food experience was worth the risk.
Reassured, last month I struck out with a hat-trick of solo efforts in Farringdon, Soho and Shoreditch respectively – Bouchon Racine, reincarnation of Henry Harris’s legendary Parisian-style bistro in Knightsbridge; wine-led Noble Rot on the site of the old Gay Hussar; and Manteca, hippest of Italian nose-to-tail newcomers, ironically replacing a Pizza Express. The space almost became Rambutan, who’ve just opened near Borough Market, but that’s a whole different story. Rambutan
Let’s start with the latter, heaving on a Sunday evening, where it was again my choice to bag a counter. My luck was in as they sat me next to the salumi slicer. Hypnotic. A bigger deal than you might imagine; they cure their charcuterie in-house. A couple my age, bearing no tats or facial hair, urged me to tuck into the Saddleback coppa and, at a hefty sounding £10, it was remarkably sweet and creamy after its sojourn in the basement hanging cabinet.
The sommelier this time was from the Southern Med via Leeds. His buttonholing me about was I from those parts (Yorkshire) put me at my ease, as did the red I ordered – a Dolcetto from AJ Vajra, a Piedmont winemaking family I know well. Light and fragrant, belying its deep purple hue, it was a a perfect companion for every morsel, from some pillowy focaccia through to the heartiest of pasta mains, fazzoletti with duck ragù and duck fat pangrattato (£15, I resisted the £10 winter truffle supplement). The wine list a a real thing of beauty, ranging from the reasonably priced rustic to stellar Tuscan royalty. Authentic credentials? 20 varieties of amaro. Cynar, Fernet Branca knew, but Madame Milu, Ferro Chiva Baliva and Ramazzotti? Maybe another time.
Yes, you’d be right in assuming no Italian presence in the ownership or probably the kitchen brigade (though it was hard to make them out in the frantic blur of the open kitchen). The restaurant is a collab between Smokestak barbecue king David Carter and Chris Leach, once of another carnivorous joint, Pitt Cue. Both huge Italophiles, obviously.
Before the duo beached up in Shoredith Manteca had been a start-up project at 10 Heddon Street, then a standalone restaurant in Soho. But it is here among the bare, plastered walls it truly seems to have found its mojo. Dining on my tod, I obviously went for small plates, tempted though I was by a wood-fired whole John Dory or a Creedy Carver duck.
My healthy greens were puntarella alla romana, its bitter leaves given a gladiator’s thrust by anchovy and chilli (£8). Pig’s head fritti (£8) next, their over-the top spice hit down to a dollop of pilacca. The chilli heat was subtler in a slick portion of line caught pollock crudo (£12), blood orange giving it a Sicilian feel.
My £15 fazzoletti with ragù was slightly less in your snout than what became a Manteca signature dish when Shaun Moffat (now at the Edinburgh Castle, Ancoats) was chef there – a pig skin ragù topped with parmesan and served with a dipping chunk of the same skin crisped. Manteca comes from the Spanish word for pork fat or lard. excpect you guessed something like that.
Manteca, 49-51 Curtain Road, London EC2A 3PT (020 7033 6642).
You wait five years for a second Noble Rot restaurant to bob up and before you can find a gap to book your solitary table at the Soho version they’ve opened a third one – in Shepherd Market, Mayfair. I was hoping to make up for a disappointing experience, just before the Pandemic, in the original Lamb’s Conduit Street Rot, where the food didn’t match up to the wine or the atmosphere of the unreconstructed 1701 townhouse. I’d been buying the Noble Rot wine magazine, out of which it sprang in 2015, and still do, on occasion buying wine from its allied Shrine to Vine operation. The sophomore Soho site is, in contrast, an irregular old haunt of mine as The Gay Hussar. Not that I frequented it in the way that generations of Labour politicos and journalists did. Not for me the scheming cabals, who used the upstairs dining room as their canteen; I just enjoyed the goose-fat and goulasch, the veal stuffed cabbage and sour cherry strudels of this very Hungarian restaurant, run by Victor Sassie for 34 years from 1953 until his death. General manager John Wrobel and others kept this time warp going until 2018. What is wonderful is how the rescuing Noble Rot team, whose backers included restaurant reviewing doyenne Marina O’Loughlin, have kept so much of the Georgian interior and atmosphere – albeit with a very different food and wine offering.
Be gone Bull’s Blood and all who go sloshed on it. This being Noble Rot, there’s a comprehensive modern list, offering numerous leftfield wines by the glass. I indulged in a Pittnauer Blaufränkisch from Austria’s Burgenland after a palate refresher of classic Kernel table beer, offering remarkable flavour at just 3.5% ABV. Oh, and a glass of minerally biodynamic Crozes Hermitage Blanc from the brilliant Laurent Habrad in-between.
Thankfully my three course supper was spot on this time. A risotto of palourde clams (£14) offered a sensory overload trinity of flavours – vermouth, fennel and bottarga. It followed by a generous confit duck leg with a classic accompaniment of cavolo nero, lentils and a sauce of Agen prunes and red wine. The £30 price a slight ouch factor. Prunes featured again with hazelnut in a biscuit for a dense wodge of chocolate mousse.
Modern British cuisine beautifully executed and a warm welcome to match. Who needs company? The narrow downstairs dining room accommodated a fellow solo diner, a family with young kids and, shades of the past, in the corner behind me, a couple plotting the political demise of a rival. Cue approval from the Martin Rowson caricatures of past habitués upstairs.
The feelgood aspect was clinched by The Green Scarf Factor. I was already on the Elizabeth Line when I got a text saying I’d left it. They’d stash it away for me. Next day when I dropped by to collect it couldn’t be found and I was in a train rush. Not to worry. When we locate it we’ll post it on to you, they said. And they did.
Noble Rot, 2 Greek St, London W1D 4NB. 020 7183 8190.
Not just the French tragedian Jean famed for his alexandrines, Racine was also a much-loved bistro across from Brompton Oratory in Knightsbridge. The name translates as root and the roots of chef/patron Henry Harris’s culinary inspiration were definitely ‘à travers la Manche’. Alas that quartier beyond Harrods was already being colonised with oligarchs whose tastes ran more to property than French bistro classics and Racine shut in 2015, leaving so many memories.
It was my perennial London bolthole. My wife Theresa and I even took a Paris-based copain there to shame him with this paradigm of ‘petits restaurants’. My dear late dining amie Sarah Hughes would fit in confession at the Oratory before boozy lunch. Even eating there on my own was a perfect comfort zone. Push through the front door’s heavy draught proof drape and you felt cosseted. A glass of Beaujolais at your elbow, a choice of Le Figaro or the Times proffered, while you awaited the likes of oysters, rillettes, rabbit with mustard and creamed spinach and a Valrhona chocolate pot.
All of which dishes, eight years on, I revisited in the upstairs dining room of the Three Compasses, Cowcross Street, opposite Farringdon Station. With Monsieur Harris himself, in front of the Bouchon Racine’s chalked menu board, beaming at the effrontery of reconvening when his fan base had nigh on given up on a permanent return.
That fanbase was very much in evidence one Tuesday lunchtime. Mostly middle-aged trenchermen on the ample side with a long afternoon’s commitment to exploring the wine list. Service was informally impeccable and the simple dining room more Montmartre than you’d expect from a faded old London tavern.
Whisper it, too, the food may be even better than of yore. My oysters were Carlingford’s finest – plump Louet Feissers au naturel, six for £22 – the Rillettes (£11) from Ibiaima pork, sourced from the French Basque country. Then so much tender flesh on the Lapin à la Moutarde (£23), cloaked in smoked bacon, its silkiest of sauces given extra succulence by my swamping the plate with an £8.50 side of spinach creamed with foie gras. Check out the menu board for all the treats I had to resist. No pudding I had told myself but, of course, the tiny two tone pot au chocolate (£8) with my double espresso was de rigueur – as they used to say in Knightsbridge.
The origin of the word bouchon for such a bistro comes from Lyon. They were originally inns for silk workers and the name apparently derives not from corks, as you might imagine, but from a 16th century expression for a bundle of twisted straw. This featured in signs to designate the restaurants. In Farringdon steer your course via the Three Compasses. A solo voyage? You won’t feel marooned.
Bouchon Racine, 66 Cowcross Street, London EC1M 6BP (020 7253 3368).