Fitzrovia French falls forwards
While there’s hardly a shortage of expensive fine dining restaurants in London, there has still nonetheless been a general shift away from pricey, starched table cloth restaurants towards less costly, more informal eateries. In most cases, big name chefs and restaurant groups have been content to merely launch spin-offs, such as Dabbous and its corrugated iron cousin Barnyard. Some chefs, however, are willing to go all in. Jun Tanaka used to cook at the glossy and expensive Pearl in Holborn, but is now heading up the more approachable The Ninth in Fitzrovia just two doors down from Barnyard.
The Ninth is, of course, hardly ramshackle. Although the exposed brick walls are cliched, its warm, inviting, moodily lit interior has became a favourite for dating couples. The friendly service can slow down and become less efficient when grappling with particularly busy evenings, although hopefully this will improve.
The menu is ostensibly French/French Mediterranean, but it’s geographically nomadic and experimental enough to be classified as Eclectic if you’re insistent on pigeonholing.
First things first
An example of this geographically indistinct approach can be seen in the rabbit confit lasagna. The thin, delicately creamy layers of bechamel was far better than the generically gooey stuff you get in lesser lasagnas. The tomato puree served in a puddle at the bottom was pleasingly umami, but the mince filling in between the sheets of bechamel was more problematic. Although pleasing enough, the finely ground mince could’ve been chicken or any other meat. Rabbit, confit or not, is all about the texture which makes this dish feel like an unfulfilled promise at best.
The thin slices of cured pork belly had a woodiness that was emphasised by the woody pecorino shavings and slightly tart dressing.
Roast plaice with chicken wings isn’t a a typo, but an actual dish. The flaky fish was pleasingly buttery, but needlessly joined by weak capers, sharp shallots and a passing hint of fennel. Even less complimentary was the chicken wing meat served off the bone. Although the chicken meat was fine on its own terms, it was very out of place when taken with the plaice. It’s as if its incongruous placement here is some sort of unnecessary in-joke that I’m not privy too.
Steaming hot potatoes cocotte needed a little more resting time, but they were nonetheless fluffy on the inside and reasonably crisp on the outside. It was especially pleasing when taken with punchy bulbs of confit garlic.
Mildly astringent blue d’auvergne and moderately fruity taleggio were both fine members of the cheese plate, but were overshadowed by the grassiness and pure after taste of the semi-soft Beaufort Chalet d’Alpage. Even more superlative was the firm Sainte-Maure de Touraine goat’s cheese which started off with a mild earthiness and ended with a milky curd-like finish.
Going back for seconds
If there’s one dish that symbolises the ascendancy of casual over formal dining, then it’s the humble scotch egg. Previously consigned to pubs and supermarket shelves, it’s an increasingly common sight on restaurant tables with chefs trying to stamp their personality on these unassuming spheres. The version at The Ninth had an uneven coating – it was too soft and oily in some places, too hard and crunchy in others. I wasn’t expecting much from the meagre layer of duck meat, so I was surprised by its earthy muskiness. It meshed well with the runny yolk. Although only mildly rich, the yolk was bolstered by a hint of salt. Overall, it’s not a bad Scotch egg but it’s in need of a lot more finesse.
Restaurants really need to stop making dreadful ceviche. The kitchen here insisted on dicing razor clams into small, mushy pieces and bathing them in lemon juice. This embarrassment was a major misstep given that texture is what really makes razor clams so enjoyable. It’s a damning sign when the crisp, chopped vegetables were both more interesting and more edible.
The king prawn macaroni, on the other hand, was surprisingly good. Firm, zingy and gently browned prawns were served on a bed of small and soft pasta shells bathed in a thin sauce. It nonetheless had the punchy taste of chives and was subtly spiced with ginger. The depth of flavour and contrasting textures made this dish a pleasure to behold.
Although billed as a spiced cod, the fillet of fish was more gently moreish and occasionally mustard-like. The accompaniment of plump and meaty mussels were zingy fresh, but weren’t especially complimentary. The cauliflower florets didn’t add much, but this fish dish was still pleasing enough, if not especially memorable.
The pain perdu needed more resting time. The pain perdu was scorchingly hot, while the accompanying vanilla ice cream was bracingly cold. Once settled, the former was very fluffy while the latter was smooth and creamy, but also bland. The crunchy honeycomb added some sweet viscousness once mellowed and melted in your mouth, but these three disparate elements never really came together.
My experiences thus far at The Ninth had, on the whole, been generally underwhelming. This wouldn’t have been the case if everything had been as memorable as the tortellini. Supple skins filled with dense and meaty strands of veal were made even better by the rich, meaty, lip-smackingly umami consommé. Outstanding.
Pickled mussels were firm, but only mildly tart. They were served in a thin, sticky sauce that had a very mild taste of paprika and topped with moderately meaty morsels of chorizo. Although not bad, the tame mussels might as well have been fresh rather than pickled.
Small slices of duck breast had been gently smoked and were tender, meaty and occasionally fatty. The braised chicory layered on top had an odd but pleasing syrupy sweetness, while the walnuts were lightly crunchy. The root veg puree was sweet and tart. Each individual component was great, but it never come together as coherent, complimentary whole.
Although a side dish of artichoke and truffle fricassee didn’t have the aroma I’d expect from a truffled dish, it did have a sticky, earthy richness that enhanced the tender artichoke segments and silver skin onions. Disappointingly though, the onions tended to outnumber the artichokes – an unexpected and unwelcome cost-cutting measure.
While light and fluffy, the large heap of plain madeleines felt more like a supersized petit fours than a proper dessert.
Go Fourth and multiply
Milky and elastic buffalo mozzarella is always a pleasure to behold – even more so when it’s joined by gently sweet and earthy beetroot as well as soft, distinctly flavoured walnuts.
The sashimi-esque slices of mackerel had been given a lick of fire which emphasised the distinctive flavour of this oily fish. Sprigs of dill and mildly tart bits of cucumber helped cut through the oily richness of the fish. The capers were surprisingly muted, but this was probably for the best – they could’ve overwhelmed the mackerel otherwise.
The slices of pork belly were just as woody as the first time around, but were now slightly thicker and more fatty too. This unctuousness contrasted neatly with the tartness of the apple dressing, while nutty pecorino complimented the pork’s woodiness. Spot on.
The salted beef cheeks were highly reminiscent of the meat in a Brick Lane salt beef bagel, but wetter. The tender and unctuous slabs of cheek were even better when taken with charred cabbage and slurps of lip-smackingly moreish consommé.
‘Beetroot tarte tatin’ sounds like a jumbled mistake, but this savoury tart was a surprising success. The somewhat chewy but nonetheless buttery pastry was filled with gently sweet and earthy slices of beetroot. The crumbs of feta got lost in the mix, but the pine nuts added a pleasingly distinctive nutty finish.
The caramelised lemon tart was unsurprisingly reminiscent of key lime pie. The searingly tart lemon filling was matched by the almost equally sharp lemon and thyme fromage frais. This lip-pursing combination won’t suit everyone, but I loved the citrusy tang.
While there were very few unremittingly awful dishes at The Ninth, my experiences were still not overwhelming positive. The kitchen’s often subtle and understated style, punctuated occasionally by bold bursts of flavour and texture, might work in a multi-course tasting menu. But they feel dull and unsatisfying in an a la carte menu where consistently bold and punchy dishes work better. There’s plenty of potential at The Ninth with some good dishes to be teased out of the menu, but this feels like hard work when compared to another nearby French restaurant – the consistently and satisfyingly brilliant Piquet. When faced with such sterling competition, it’s really no contest at all.
What to order: Pork belly slices; King prawn macaroni; Tortellini; Mozzarella and beetroot; Flamed mackerel; Salted beef cheeks; Beetroot tarte tatin; Lemon tart
What to skip: Razor clam ceviche
Name: The Ninth
Address: 22 Charlotte Street, Fitzrovia, London W1T 2NB
Phone: 020 3019 0880
Opening Hours: Monday–Saturday noon-14:30 and 17.30-22.30. Closed Sunday and Bank Holidays.
Reservations: highly recommended
Average cost for one person including soft drinks and service charge: £50 approx.