Review: Noble Rot - 'The sticky toffee pudding was the best we had ever encountered'
Noble Rot, 51 Lamb's Conduit St., London WC1N 3NB (00 44) 207 242 8963
I'm a late convert to the joys of rugby spectatorship, but a few weeks ago I found myself rather unexpectedly in the Stade de France, witness to Johnny Sexton's spectacular match-winning drop goal, and now I find myself hooked. (Truth be told, until the last few minutes, I was starting to get bored, but thankfully not as bored as the friends of friends who decided to leave the stadium before the end of the match so as to avoid the rush on the RER back into the city; I need a weeping emoji here.)
Sadly, I don't have tickets for the England v Ireland clash at Twickenham on St Patrick's Day, so I'll be watching at home on the sofa instead, but if I was going to be in London any time soon, I'd be beating a path back to Noble Rot, which I visited for the first time in January.
I've been reading about Noble Rot for a few years; it's much loved by some of my favourite UK food writers and restaurant critics (the ones who will sometimes admit to having more than a single glass of wine with their meal, and seem actually to get that restaurants are about fun and conviviality as much as they are about food), tucked away in Bloomsbury, not far from the British Museum.
The consultant chef is Stephen Harris from The Sportsman in Seasalter, Kent, the best restaurant in the UK last year, according to Restaurant Magazine. Harris famously describes The Sportsman as a 'grotty, run-down pub by the sea'; the self-taught chef last year published an intelligent, even scholarly, cookbook that happens to be the least pretentious explanation that I've ever read of the philosophy that underpins a terroir-based approach to cooking. At The Sportsman, the ingredients in the kitchen - including the salt, which the restaurant makes itself - come from the hyper-local area, and determine the menu.
That's all very well in Kent, which is surrounded by farmland and orchards and sits on the coast, but it's obviously not directly translatable in terms of sourcing policy to the centre of London. So the menu at Noble Rot, which changes daily, doesn't pretend to be local, but it is largely British and seasonal, with occasional forays to Europe for ingredients that are just too damn fine to eschew.
We visited for lunch on a Saturday, and on a chilly winter day Noble Rot felt like exactly the right place to be - dark, womb-like, cosy, populated by people who looked as if they were serious, but not too serious, about their food and wine; many appeared to be regulars. There are some nice little snugs, ideal for a group. Interestingly, several of these were occupied by groups of men who appeared to be friends rather than colleagues, which is something that you rarely see in Irish restaurants, where the majority of single sex groups tend to be women.
We started with slip sole and smoked butter, a dish that's something of a Sportsman signature, presented entirely unadorned. It's unusual to see a plate with no garnish at all, but the starkness of presentation highlights the freshness of the fish and the simplicity of the dish. Lovely.
Lincolnshire smoked eel risotto was a powerhouse of flavour, hearty and robust, adorned with a vibrant herb oil. If you think that you couldn't eat eel, think again.
For mains, roast Challans duck and turnip, and Middle White pork belly with celeriac and Bramley apple sauce. These are comforting dishes, designed to sustain, as - whatever about the food - Noble Rot has (as you might have deduced from the name) a lot to do with the wine. Both are impeccably executed - the celeriac purée silky, the Savoy cabbage bright, the crackling on the belly and the skin of the duck just the right side of excess.
An ever-changing chalkboard on the wall lists some of the wines available by the glass - and what wines they are! Yes, of course you can have a simple glass of Vinho Verde from Portugal for £2.75, but on the day that we visited you could (budget permitting) also have a glass of Chateau d'Yquem 2004 for £56. (Truly, the Coravin is a wonderful invention.)
We drank a bottle of Umathum, Zweigelt 2015 from Austria with our meal - juicy and light, perfect for lunchtime - but decided to have a bit of fun with the suggested pairings with dessert and cheese. My companion had spotted the sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice-cream heading in the direction of another table and was determined to nab one for himself. As dark and sticky as it should be, we thought that it was the best version of the classic pudding that either of us had ever encountered. The wine pairing was an Argyros Vinsanto 2009 from Santorini, Greece, warmly sweet with balanced acidity.
Unusually, the cheese plate came with a suggested flight of wines to match - and on the basis that you might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, we dove right in. Brie de Meaux with Heritiers du Comtes Lafon, Macon-Milly-Lamartine 2015, Adeleger Urberger with Maestro Sierra Fino from Spain, and Bleu des Causses with Climens Barsac 'Cypres de Climens' 2011. It's not something that you should undertake lightly, but worthy of consideration if you find yourself in Noble Rot, with nothing too serious on the agenda for the rest of the day. The bill for lunch for two came to £200, all-in.
8/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
The set lunch is £16 for two courses and £20 for three: you might get Bleu de Causses with pickled pear and walnut, roast Cornish hake with Hispi cabbage and green peppercorn sauce, and salted caramel ice-cream to finish.
ON A BLOW OUT
Bellota ham followed by braised John Dory, rhubarb and custard tart, and cheese will cost £120 for two before wine or service.
THE HIGH POINT
Noble Rot is a cocoon of delight.
THE LOW POINT
It's quite a distance from Twickenham.