6 May 2008

18th Century Lasagne

'It's best to have failure happen early in life. It wakes up the Phoenix bird in you so you rise from the ashes.'
[Anne Baxter, Actress]

RISING THE morning following ‘The Phoenix’ was staggeringly difficult. Despite implementing a mandatory tie policy to try to instil decorum into Will Gau’s ‘Gaustronaughts’ dining club, the sheer volume of our tasting line-up shunned modesty.

It is hard to find the entrance to the large bleached villa. Eventually I recognised a familiar face in a blazing jumper, beckoning me around the corner, through a discreet door. Inside: a small bar and a topography of tables meeting Christine Keeler chairs. Fairy lights twinkled by the coveted terrace. A dramatic art collection lines the walls. I am faced with what initially looks like a dislocated parachutist moments from his death; his shoot somehow landed before him. Appetising.
Franco Taruschio lends a tangible Italian influence via Head Chef Roger Brook, his Sous at the Walnut Tree Inn, Abergavenny.
Gordon Ramsay famously televisually savaged that controversial venue four years after it changed ownership.
It eventually closed, rising from the bitter embers this year under ‘distinctive’ Irish chef, Shaun Hill (Glasshouse). Part of the rejuvenation includes a tirade of ‘@’ symbols on its menu.

Back in Putney, after clinking Cornish oysters, and then glasses of pomegranate prosecco, crisp, simple antipasti arrived. Breasoalo was ‘ruddy’ good, accompanied by a cross-section of artichoke. Softened asparagus with imminently runny egg was lightly seasoned and sprinkled with Parmesan. A lunar landscape of Vitello Tonnato, correctly chilled and studded with capers, lacked sufficient salty tuna intensity. Rumours of an oxtail ravioli failed to materialise...

The best part of the meal by far was the Vincisgrassi Maceratesi, described by one critic as ‘a veritable Maserati of pasta’. This almost corruptly creamy lasagne was filled to the brink with wild mushrooms, truffles and Parma ham. A Taruschio authored dish with eighteenth century roots. Sticky swordfish was overpowered by a clotted tomato ragu: meaty and correct, but more fuel then thrill – I forget how boring this dish generally is.

To culminate, a pudding which made me nervous. I remember little other then the fact it rolled around my mouth like latex. Not that I regularly suck on latex (or would wish to).

I accidentally left my notebook behind, meaning I cannot elaborate on all of the wines we sampled. And despite a circular to fellow sommeliers, nor it seems, can they. However I do remember two of the vinous highlights which we brought with us, including Gaja’s ’90 Sugarillo Barolo, which was beginning to creep past its apogee. It was graceful, layered with a perfume of peppermint tea, cherries, dried roses, feint mushroom, exotic spices and blessed with smooth, resolved tannins.

The very best wine provided friction to our Italian theme, coming from Moulis: Château Maucaillou ’98. With a very dark, small core and a nose suggesting feint incense, cigar and sweetened black tea, what really struck me was its beautiful texture. Close to perfection, its lithe, finely balanced contours transcended flavour, resolving in a feint, final tannic filigree.

Overall, whilst the building is far from cosy and the décor a little IKEA, the food carried a strong element of honesty: reassuring, traditionally combined flavours collaged from excellent ingredients. Incidentally, as well as there being issues with art, some of the signage is awkard. The disabled loo sign, for example, features two people, one on crutches, his friend in a wheelchair. Maybe this is the aftermath of the parachute incident?

The Phoenix - 162-164 Lower Richmond Road, SW15 1LY. T. 020 8780 3131.

FURTHER LINK: Franco Taruschio’s Cookery School

Phoenix on Urbanspoon