26 Apr 2008

Your Plaice or Mine?

'No good fish goes anywhere without a porpoise'
[Lewis Carroll]
THE DAY after St. George’s, when I attended a liquid buffet of homegrown wines overlooking the hallowed turf of Lords, I found myself reconnoiter towards another British bastion: fish 'n' chips. The venue, Tom’s Place, Chelsea, where just enough grease authentically coats brightly kitsch, cool fittings. I suppose great thought went into its name, an irresistible double entendre conferring informality, a la 'Central Perk'. (Or should that be 'Perch'?)
My companion and I had just been to the launch of Sublim-elle wines, a range of insipid, French rejects marketed towards women. A patronising idea, they must presume lady consumers need to see a little pink on a label before committing to a purchase. It was held in an airless basement, the ‘Live Lounge’ of ‘Sopranos’, Kensington High Street. That grubby mosh pit made a sixth form disco near time out look tantalising. Its best feature was the exit.
Anyway, Tom’s Place is the brainchild of the suddenly environmentally aware chef, Tom Aikens, engine behind the eponymous Michelin starred restaurant and its stepping-stone, Tom’s Kitchen. In his 'Place', found on a quiet crossroads, with a neon sign, photographs of rugged suppliers line white walls. A piercing dot matrix board lists take away prices in red. A silent plasma screen shows formiddable fishermen working the catch. The inside cover of the menu features a polemic on sustainability.
If one believes the backstory, then Aikens treats his fish better then staff and patrons. According to Wikipedia, the Norfolk chef ‘was sacked by Pied à Terre for allegedly "branding" a 19-year-old trainee with a hot knife’. He then ‘caused a stir' by accusing a customer of stealing a 'silver coffee spoon’ before stabbing a sous-chef ‘in the buttock’ (with a knife).
Fortunately, we encountered genuine sweetness, being not so much greeted as befriended by a waitress who implored us to stay with her amidst the open plan action, rather than ascend the spiral to the dining room.
Carbon neutral Belu water from Shropshire softly accompanied Oxford vineyard Brightwell’s Flint '06 (Huxelrebe/Chardonnay). Pleasant, satin, with a delicate acidity and a long finish. Aikens comes from a family of wine merchants and it is worth pointing out what most critics have omitted: the list is entirely local to these shores and reasonable. Going further, another side of the menu depicts the vineyards, although going by my last visit, Nyetimber is not in Portsmouth. Our waitress explained that a number of customers demurred the English focus. I suggest levying £90 corkage on such unadventurous statues hell-bent on bringing their own Sancerre.
I chose red Sea Gurnard, a beautiful, trumpet like fish. For many years it was unloved, probably because of its dullard name. Celebrity chef advocates like Rick Stein have begun to turn the fish's fortune. Crisply battered and served with tasty, chewy, greaseless, beefy chips perked by T.P.’s spicy ketchup. My companion's cod was flocculent, but eclipsed by what A.A. Gill would term the other 'bottom-feeder'.
Two flutes of Nyetimber 's '00 Classic Cuvée richly cleansed the palate afterwards: in flavour, morning patisserie met Marmite with truffle shavings. A tangy, creamy Marmalade ice cream, served in a dinky theatre pot automatically arrived with two spoons.
The loo had the concorde of hand-dryers, a Dyson airblade, and an extractor fan seemingly more industrial then the ones over the kitchen. Indeed, without air conditioning, and with poor ventilation, we became slightly drunkenly marinated in the fried vapours.
The customers looked affluent, with little middle ground between pre-drinking age and the over sixties. Whilst I read criticism about diners feeling overwhelmed by (to quote a friend) 'evangelical ingredientism', the experience was a delight.
Tom's Place - 1 Cale Street, London. SW3 3QT. T. 020 7351 1806
Also pictured, London Bridge's 'Shunt Lounge', a vast artist's labyrinth and bar damply secreted behind a small door by the underground station.