If one day you find yourself tired of London’s relentless culinary scene, there’s a little place I know, that serves up a reliably good dinner. It’s not fine dining, and you do have to know the owner to get in, but he used to be a restaurant critic so he certainly knows the value of a good meal in a warm and generous environment. This is dinner at Dad’s.
Reservations are necessary. Due to this ‘restaurant’ being located in my father’s kitchen, there’s always a chance the premises may have been commandeered by a wine-tasting group from the local chapter of the West London WI or an impromptu dog-grooming salon, so get in early. BYOB as a concept is appreciated but not required. The bar is enthusiastically well-stocked, but don’t expect a lot of ice in your drink. Teetotalers are tolerated but not embraced, as they send a shiver of alarm through the room – like literally anyone walking into a meercat’s western saloon. It’s not a strict dress code per se, but do bear in mind, latecomers sporting something plunging will almost certainly get a better table. Parking is a fiasco. Absolutely NO sharing plates. Vegans are viewed with uncertainty and will not be catered for.
In certain circles, the food here is legendary, although the kitchen is not noted for its innovation. I’m not saying the chef has a small repertoire exactly – the man appeared on Masterchef, as an expert! – Only that he has filed over 300 restaurant reviews but, left to his own devices, more often than not the menu just says “coq au vin”. CAV is a failsafe. If you’re going to spend your career churning out bowl after bowl of one glorious classical dish, let it be this one. CAV has a quiet but characterful dignity, like an edible Farmer Hoggett from ‘Babe – Pig in the City’. To be presented with a bowl of sighing meat melting into wine, studded with bacon and those tiny little mushrooms that could actually be Charles Campion’s suit buttons, is to be given a restorative bear-hug and a soothing caress across the cheek all at once. It’s so comforting, it’s as if the chicken has got into the bath with you, handed you a martini and said “tell me your troubles” while rubbing your feet. Chez Dad’s the traditional CAV has been turned on its head and cooked in white rather than red making it much lighter and more forgiving, not to mention miles more attractive, whilst retaining a golden, salty, crispy skin on the chicken, which let’s face it, is the best part of chicken anyway.
I have come here with my reporters notebook and my viper tongue to review the place, and even though I made my booking under a pseudonym, the chef sweeps me up and plants a loud smacking kiss on my ear, which I feel is a bit unprofessional, but go with it. There follows a lot of schmoozing chat, nightmarish blue aperitifs, glad-handing and hummus but very little culinary action. By about 9pm the kitchen still hasn’t stirred and many diners are getting agitated and about as wine-sodden as the chicken. Table 2 looks like they might kick off about the service, but credit to the chef, he is resolutely unperturbed, lost in the mist of an anecdote about a prima ballerina of his recent acquaintance.
To be fair the ambience usually makes up for the faults in timing, and there is always a very good musical selection; harmonious, not overbearing and complimentary to the food. Tonight we are treated to vin Morrison, but on fish-pie-Friday it could easily have been salmon Dave.
Hours mounting up, and we are still not close to being fed when the barman sends over a bribe – a gin and tonic. Clearly he fears the sting of my scathing review. Well here’s your comeuppance, I think. Now you see the devastation you cause when you go on national television and say things like, “the pear has no presence in this puree” in front of John Torode.
As I am settling back in my chair, as smug as any crusader for restaurant criticism justice can be, I am astonished to discover his motive is not to preserve his reputation by wooing me with drink, rather, he would like me to “help” by making a salad. I’m stunned at this insouciance, but I’m nothing if not dutiful [and buyable] so I hop off my perch to become Garde Manger. It has struck me in the past that this establishment has an incredibly laissez-faire attitude towards seasonality and the use of green fresh produce generally, so I suppose I should be grateful for this bag of rocket.
The chef, who until now has been operating the Keith Floyd policy “one for [the dish] – one for me”, has taken on a distinctly glazed expression, and sunk into the floor to sing a little song about goblins when suddenly the oven timer of his mind goes off with a ping and he snaps back into focus, clear, alert, professionalism personified. “Places please!” he calls, with an authoritative clap like a drama coach. At last, service has begun.
I am reminded at once why I return to this place. The food, when it arrives, is breathtaking. Gloriously rich, and unctuous without being heavy. Glisteningly succulent, a flight-shy chicken has been elevated to golden heights. Rosemary, thyme, chili, and garlic have performed a miraculous Mediterranean alchemy. These are flavours that reassure even as they enthrall. You are at once familiar with, and led astray by, the taste. There is buttery mashed potato, never not what you want, although in this instance the latent Irishness of the chef has caused him to season it with spring onions – something I do not approve of. A good mash comprises equal parts spud and butter; do not muck about.
This kind of food, no matter how simple it is, really sings to you and transports you to a hundred lit-up evenings, illuminated by stars, candlelight, or a flickering tv, in which you’ve shared this carbon cut-out meal and chatted absolute nonsense, screamed with laughter, fallen off chairs, sulked, cried and become enchanted by your family all over again. It speaks a different language, that of memory and love. PHEW – clearly the key to this successful restaurant is to keep guests so well topped up and ravenously hungry, that when food does arrive, they’ll be grateful to the point of tears.
There’s only ever one thing on the pudding menu. A flirtaciously quivering milky dome of panna cotta, with a raspberry nipple. Jesus, Dad! The tits dessert. Every time! It is, of course, heaven. The sweet smooth wobble a refreshing balm after all that salt and umami. The scent of vanilla beckons like a cult leader, deceptively bland and gently soothing until it secures you in its clutches and makes you long for a thousand more. I suspect it may have been sourced from a local Waitrose, but no judgement. This particular pudding is merely necessary punctuation. This restaurant knows its limitations, maintains laser-like focus on its speciality, (if not its clientele) and consistently gets results.