Nine Elms doesn’t have to mean zero taste
Nine Elms is a funny ol’ place. Largely still a building site at the time of writing, when finished it will offer an unappetising vision of what London could become. An urban tundra of plush hi-rise homes that most Londoners can’t afford (even the ‘affordable’ ones will be out of reach for many), all clustered next to the existing clutch of lifeless, windswept riverside plazas. To paraphrase one critic, it’s a wasted opportunity – possibly the biggest in a generation – as it misuses land that could’ve transformed the lives of so many and not just the rich.
It would therefore be mindlessly easy to turn up one’s nose at Darby’s, the latest restaurant from the folks behind top-notch restaurants such as Sorella and the now sadly departed Paradise Garage. Nestled underneath a Jenga totem of unattainably aspirational apartments and falling under the shadow of the cuboid American embassy, its premises and locale can feel oddly generic. Almost as if it had been copied and pasted from somewhere, anywhere else in the world of inoffensive architectural renderings.
But to do so would mean missing out, and not just on its outdoor seating with a view of a picturesque water feature. The short chophouse-ish menu, which changes fairly regularly, has more than its fair share of gems.
Snacks and starters at Darby’s
Oysters, apparently harvested off the island of Lindisfarne, were fleshy and lightly sweet. They hardly needed the proffered tabasco and briney chopped onions.
Beef nuggets were crisp on the outside, meaty and lightly chewy on the inside. These are the beef croquettes that so many other restaurants wish they made, but have never been able to pull off.
A wee cocktail stick skewer of equally lilliputian portions of anchovy, olive and pickled chilli could’ve escaped the trap of being overpriced if everything had come together to be greater than the sum of the constituent parts. Except it didn’t – sweet olives, tart chillies and tangy, lightly salty anchovy were fine in their own right. But they largely cancelled each other out when gobbled as a whole.
Truffles and Baron Bigod on toast was more about the fungus than the cheese. Fragrant to the nose and earthy on the tongue, the truffle shavings easily outshone the surprisingly muted cheese. The promised figs and walnuts were largely missing in action though, while the thin almost bruschetta-esque toast was a bit too tough and chewy for my liking. While far from bad, this felt and tasted like an unbalanced effort.
Crusty sourdough would’ve been nothing without the butter and its lactic tang and milky consistency – scoopable as much as spreadable. Almost like buttermilk or drinking yoghurt, it made for a fine spread.
Bitty crab would’ve been far less enjoyable without everything else that had been engineered into this starter. Crunchy samphire amplified the crab’s salty and moreish qualities. Cured egg added tangy richness, while the chewy caramelised fried onion pieces were a source of both counterbalancing mouthfeel and taste.
A platter of cured meats consisted of three discrete choices, each one distinctively enjoyable. Bresaola was comparatively dense yet effortlessly tender, while coppa was fatty and earthy. Thick slices of peppery, aniseedy and moreish salami was my favourite of the three.
The firm and supple pasta envelopes of the agnolotti came filled with ricotta that was almost like curd in its milky sweetness. Bitters greens tinged with a citrusy astringency were not only delicious in their own right, but acted as a neat counterweight to the filled pasta.
Although really a side rather than a snack or a starter, a special mention has to be made about the beef fat potatoes. Clearly made in the same mould as the spuds from Quality Chop House and Bubala, the crunchy golden crust hid sheaves of glossy, moist potato that cleaved apart with ease.
Meat and fish mains at Darby’s
Tarmac Guts and other pie pendants would likely take issue with the beef and bone marrow pie. It had a pastry lid laid on top of the 6in-ish cast iron pan, much like a pot pie, rather than a sealed, self-contained all-round pastry body. Even so, all but the most ornery would take issue with the sticky, richly moreish and chunky mince filling. It was made even better with the judicious application of the gelationous bone marrow, spooned from the jutting, centrally located bone. The filling’s mouth-coating, toe curling richness was matched by the buttery, slightly chewy pastry which unwound like a giftbox ribbon.
It would’ve been easy to plump for the sirloin or chateaubriand cuts of steak, but it’s always a far more interesting test of the kitchen’s skills to see how they cope with cheaper cuts that aren’t as inherently tender. Featherblade/flat iron had been braised into a sticky, moreishly rich mass – almost like confit or perhaps slow-smoked short rib – that could be cut with just a fork. Offsetting its outrageous richness and succulence was bitter, crisp kale. Thin yet silky, fine-grained polenta had a gentle nuttiness and milkiness that held its own against the beef’s ample charms.
While cut into relatively thin slices, monkfish retained its meaty, bouncy mouthfeel. Each glossy medallion appeared to have been wrapped in nori, although I might be wrong on that. Whatever the case, the moreish qualities of each slice were subtly amplified by the seaweed bisque, served in a wee jug on the side. Gently creamy and umami, almost more like a dashi crossed with buttermilk than a bisque, it complimented rather than overwhelmed the monkfish.
Desserts at Darby’s
Meringue shards, neither too soft nor too crisp, had a uniquely sweet tanginess. The meringue proved to be a fine companion for the tartness and milky smoothness of the buttermilk ice cream and the sweet squelch of berries.
Peach sorbet was a remarkable dessert. It tasted unmistakably true to the fruit, while texturally it was flawlessly smooth with not a single errant ice crystal blemishing its mouthfeel. The only flaw was that its peach flavour faded relatively quickly, albeit after several mouthfuls.
Identikit chocolate mousse needed more bittersweet richness to make up for its inherent lack of mouthfeel, especially as that wasn’t going to come from the unidentifiable biscuit/cake crumbs scattered about the plate. The accompanying gelato was a smooth and airy affair, but its yeasty, tangy and bitter Guinness flavour was not to my liking at all (although, to be fair, I’m a teetotaller). There was some caramel to make up for it, but overall this was easily the least successful of all the desserts I tried at Darby’s.
It’s easy to dismiss Darby’s due to its gilded location, but I can’t really blame the chefs/proprietors behind this restaurant. After their struggles with Paradise Garage and The Dairy, there’s a cold logic in opening a restaurant in a part of town where there’ll definitely be plenty of people willing and able to cough up good coin for good cooking. If that’s part of the bargain that has to be paid for sustainable restaurants in this city, then we’ll have to make our peace with it.
Address: 3 Viaduct Gardens, London SW11 7AY
Phone: 020 7537 3111
Opening Hours: Wednesday 18.00-22.00. Thursday-Saturday noon-15.00 and 18.00-22.00. Sunday noon-16.00.
Reservations? Highly recommended.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks and service charge: £70 approx.