Saturday 21 September 2019

Restaurant review: A feast from the sea, cooked to perfection

Darby's. No 3 Viaduct Gardens, London SW11 7AY. darbys-london.com

Old school glamour: Darby's dining room and bar is a handsome space. Photo: Nic Crilly-Hargrave Photography
Old school glamour: Darby's dining room and bar is a handsome space. Photo: Nic Crilly-Hargrave Photography
Katy McGuinness

Katy McGuinness

London is officially melting on the day of my second visit to Irish chef Robin Gill's new Darby's restaurant in Vauxhall, part of Ballymore's Embassy Gardens' development.

A couple of months earlier, women shivered in floral dresses on opening night, when the promise of summer lay ahead. Now train tracks are buckling in the heat, Boris Johnson has become prime minister and it might just be the end of days.

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My flight is late and I arrive in a puddle; it's a pity that Ballymore's swimming pool in the sky has yet to become a reality, because I'd be making a beeline straight for it. One of my guests is already happily perched on a stool at the (magnificent) bar, gin rickey in hand.

I'm in need of something cold and refreshing, and an enquiry as to whether Darby's is serving any light, chilled reds is met with the suggestion of Pomagrana, a pale organic wine made from 100pc Trepat grapes by Fredi Torres in southern Catalonia that's a new one on me. Blissfully, it's got an ABV of only 11pc.

Service at the bar is cheery, but at the table our waitress is unsmiling. We do our best to ignore her surliness; the rest of the floor staff seems like a happy bunch.

We start with snacks of gildas and truffle arancini. At Uno Mas in Dublin, the gildas feature anchovies, at Darby's the olives and slender green chillies on cocktail sticks are matched with smoked eel instead; it's a twist that works. (Why are gildas called 'little perverts'? I have no idea, but I like them. A lot.)

The arancini are decorously-sized, hot, melting like the train tracks across the nation.

Oysters from John Ward's Dooncastle in Connemara, known for their characteristic residual sweetness (the lands that drain into the waters where they are raised were used to grow sugar beet, way back when) and plump salinity are pristine; the Black Water Wilds from Essex smaller and meatier.

We're intrigued by Exmoor caviar, produced from sturgeon farmed in Devon, which comes with a brown butter waffle, cultured cream and some excellent Secret Smokehouse smoked salmon.

There is never enough caviar is there? Here is no exception, but what there is on offer is salty and luxurious, and for £19.50 one can't really expect much more than a teaspoon.

For my money, the Truffled Baron Bigod - essentially very posh cheese on toast - is the winning starter. A passing waiter spots the size of the portion that we've been given and arrives with a supplement. "That looked a bit stingy," he says. Top marks, young man.

By way of main course, a whole 1.1kg turbot to share. There is no offer from our gloomy server to assist in its filleting, which I imagine some diners might find disconcerting. I make a reasonable fist of the task for an amateur, but it's a messy business that not every customer will want to take on, especially in pale-coloured clothing.

The fish is cooked impeccably, and sides, of borlotti beans with herbs and greens, glorious Cuore del Vesuvio tomatoes anointed with Capezzana olive oil and a simple and perfect green salad are flawless. To finish, a shared affogato, all we can rise to after the feast.

Next time, I'll be eating bread from the in-house bakery and a very rare steak from Darby's own whole animal dry-aging room.

The bill for three, including two bottles of the Pomagrana (£53) and a glass of rosé, comes to £279.50, with the 12.5pc discretionary service charge that is customary everywhere in London these days bringing the total to £314.44.

PS. If you are in London, do try to get to Flor beside Borough Market, a sister restaurant to Lyle's, reviewed here a couple of years back.

The red prawns crudo are just one of many sensational small dishes on the menu, the clam flatbread another.

THE RATING

9/10 food

8/10 ambience

9/10 value

26/30

ON A BUDGET

A pint of Guinness and half a dozen oysters costs a tenner between 5 and 7pm.

ON A BLOW OUT

Dinner for two - caviar, oysters, whole turbot, sides and dessert - will be £130 before drinks.

THE HIGH POINT

Flavour, flavour, flavour in a room coming down with old-school glamour.

THE LOW POINT

Service without a smile from a waitress who looked as if she would prefer to be somewhere else.

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