An unusual dinner leaves John Underwood keen for a peek under the bonnet of fine dining.
I’ve walked past the Crowne Plaza in Blackfriars a hundred times without ever really noticing it. An anonymous block clad, like most of its neighbours, in Portland stone, the hotel stands towards the edge of the Square Mile on the site of a long-defunct royal residence. Bridewell Palace, one of Henry VIII’s favoured homes during his first marriage, had a varied post-regal life as school, hospital, prison and, eventually, fuel for the Great Fire of London. I visited this week in search of a rare opportunity; the chance to influence the creation of a new restaurant menu.
One of two onsite restaurants at the hotel, Diciannove is an understated space serving regional dishes from across Italy (with a barely-perceptible focus on Liguria, birthplace of head chef Alessandro). Following a substantial refurbishment, around three quarters of the menu is being scrapped in favour of a new, more seasonal approach that cleaves to the traditional Italian courses – antipasti, primi, secondi, contorni and dolci.
Having eaten and criticised my way through something like half of the proposed new menu, I’m now in the odd situation of having to review a restaurant offering that doesn’t technically exist yet. As and when Diciannove’s menu is updated, I can wholeheartedly recommend the octopus salad, a textural delight bolstered by silky potato and unexpected slivers of celery. I’d happily return for the broad bean pappardelle, half a field’s worth of gleaming beans heaped on rich, yolky homemade pasta. And if you happen to try the moist, outrageously tender polleto, do let me know if the kitchen ended up discarding the asparagus purée as per my heavily annotated score-sheet.
I’ve got no idea how useful, if at all, our feedback will prove, but the menu development model is something I’d love to see more of elsewhere. In fact, the idea of getting a behind-the-scenes look at a favourite restaurant is something that might interest punters as well as press. Chef’s tables, often situated in the kitchen and absent anything so prosaic as a menu, have become increasingly popular with foodies looking for an edge. After all, there’s only one place to go once you’ve got into the kitchen; directly into the mind of the chef.
What decides which of Russell Norman’s cicchetti make it onto the menu at Polpo and which stay in his cookery books? How long did it take to decide on the precise cornucopia of garnishes served with Chiltern Firehouse’s steak tartare? And who wouldn’t love to know which heathen gods Heston Blumenthal must privately propitiate in order to come up with the new Meat Fruit? Finding out might just be London’s next food craze.