Charlotte’s Place – St. Matthew’s Road
Posted on January 5, 2015
I’ve seen them at it. Hunched over moleskine notepads on the front row of an Electrolux demo arena, guffawing at the wisecracks of a soon-to-be TV chef and competing amongst themselves for the dumbest question award. Dying to be noticed they barge through the mob to stick grubby fingers in pickles and purees, ‘mmm-ing’ and ahh-ing’ in a witless gaggle. They clamour to get their cookbooks signed and photographs taken with sauce down their fronts, spewing the toe-curling stock phrases of amateur criticism – ‘how succulent’, ‘so moist’ – through gobfuls of grouse. Utterly inspired they’ll drop into Waitrose on the way home and spend a fortune on organic ingredients, only to butcher them three ways and smear them on a cold plate like a grim Kandinsky.
It has to be said you can enjoy all things edible without being a ‘foodie’. Just don’t call yourself one. Those snooty members of the middle class who do have -through iteration of brazen pompousness – stigmatised the word and made themselves the butt of mockery. Their crowing tales from Fitzrovia, of which the main protagonists (‘my foodie friends and I…’) seem to revel in the giddy heights of self-proclaimed sophistication, not only bore everyone into a coma but reveal how much of a pretentious fart they’ve become. Attaching ‘ie’ to the end of their interest is not only infantile, it has simply made it easier for the rest of us to classify these self-important know-it-alls into one obnoxious bunch.
So while these culinary groupies latch onto a particular chef or restaurant in the hope of a signature or free pud, the rest of us go out to eat. I tend not to give a running commentary of how the cauliflower veloute is slipping down each muscular ring of my oesophagus, or groan loudly into my ‘divine’ chocolate fondant as I suck it off the back of my spoon. I simply say if I like it, or keep quiet if I don’t.
But as I sit in my favourite local restaurant, Charlotte’s Place on Ealing Common, demolishing the breadboard while I wait for my parents who are – in spite of its proximity – late, I overhear the sycophantic flattery of a proper foodie. ‘So smooth’ they croon from the corner of the small room referring, I think, to the pomme puree with the daube de boeuf. Now I don’t know whether they found this surprising. Purees are, after all, liquidised so that even the most slack-jawed and toothless among us can get the stuff down and two rosettes and 30 years of practise, I imagine, is enough time to beat even the balkiest of lumps out of some mash. Charlotte’s knows what it’s doing. This diner hadn’t got the foggiest.
I half expected it though. Such insufferable utterances are bound to be heard in a restaurant that has just this year won a coveted spot on Opentable’s ‘Fit For Foodies’ list (normal people might even enjoy them too). And it’s in good company. A mere whisper of The Square, The Ledbury or Murano is enough to get the most rudimental foodie salivating like Pavlov’s dog, but Charlotte’s in many ways is ‘fitter’ than most.
It’s small and neighbourly in a Chez Bruce kind of way. A ring-the-doorbell, hang-your-coat-up place that’s like dropping into an old friend’s for lunch; that one you don’t see very often who always makes an effort and happens to be a bloody good cook. And, unfortunately for the rest of us, renders it the perfect discovery to show off to your foodie pals.
But it’s that good I can live with it. Just. In my case it’s the place to take the family; the banker for birthdays when good, sophisticated food and a warm atmosphere is what you need. And to their credit, each year has been as brilliant as the last.
This time a single ravioli of black pudding alighted like inky flying saucer, its freight crumbly and meaty, far from extraterrestrial and perfectly at home in the mouth. A rich shellfish and cauliflower cream finished a brilliant starter. Others were equally good. Chicken liver parfait served in a jar with brioche toast and the pumpkin soup, walnuts and whipped goat’s curd were classic and festive dishes; the soused mackerel and the pork cheek hard to turn down.
The pork belly main was standout. Particularly special was the gentle hum of a garlicky milk puree that tied the meat impeccably to its tender snail garnish. Baby carrots and parsley provided morsels of freshness to an otherwise unctuous dish.
Duck breast, spiced parsnip and chestnut gnocchi was a seasonal delight. The confit leg with its foot still on was skilled and spooky, hooked rigid as if a cryptic scroll had been prised from its grip – its clean and classical preparation good enough to exhaust Monica’s bank of Masterchef superlatives. The braised beef with onions and mushrooms was wintery and spoon-friendly – a casserole of the highest order that nearly brought Dad to tears. Unfussy sweets of lemon meringue tart and poached rhubarb with white chocolate and cream cheese mousse were tasty and light and balanced the menu nicely.
For as long as it does what it’s doing, Charlotte’s will continue to charm. There’s no danger of it suddenly ‘doing a foodie’ and launching into a strut like a gastronomic demi-god. It’s grounded, unassuming and unlike sex, surprisingly brilliant first time around. Let’s hope more of Opentable’s informed, adventurous and appreciative diners -and not their foodies – will now venture west to be wowed. Our local treasure deserves to be shared; Ealing can’t hide this place forever.