It was a grim, chill and stormy day on which I made my way up the steps and across the canal bridge to the Dock Kitchen; and it was a grim, chill and stormy Fort who made his way out of the restaurant an hour or two later. Very unlike me. Normally I’m Mr Sunny, particularly after lunch
The Dock Kitchen has become one of the weathervanes of contemporary London eating: the likes of AA Gill and Jay Rayner have heaped praise upon it; Stevie Parle, the chef, has been hailed as the next big thing; and metro-gastro-fashion-surfers are making their way to the Dock Kitchen in increasing numbers, Hannay and Leithen and I among them.
The Dock Kitchen is a welcoming place, in the sense that a canteen is a welcoming place – sexless, classless, characterless, designer-Ikea, clean and bright, with stainless steel here and there, and laminated tables and moulded chairs. It’s a place for everyone. It’s accessible. Its idiom is universal. It’s democratic in a Lib-Dem kind of way. The kitchen is open and transparent. If you come in the way I did, you pass heaps of lovely produce, either for sale or for lunch.
The menu is short, but it goes a long way, if you see what I mean. Here’s a biryani from India. There’s gnudi (a kind of gnocchi) from Italy. There are clams with toasted coconut and chilli (from where, I wonder?) and brill with coconut (from Kerala, at a guess); a salad with puntarelle, which is much loved by Romans, and bavette, which I would call skirt, a splendid cheap French cut of beef. You get the picture: here is a chef with a questing spirit, adventurous, you might say, daring even.
I have nothing against a questing spirit in the kitchen, so long as the questing spirit in question quests to good effect. But if you’re going to put a biryani on your menu, you had better make sure it is a superior biryani, or people will wonder why they shouldn’t go to an Indian restaurant where it’s made properly. The Dock Kitchen’s biryani was acceptable, once you located the chunks of lamb buried beneath a clumsy haystack of rice, but I’m not going to make the long journey to the Empty Quarter of Ladbroke Grove to find it.
Similarly, if you are going to advertise puntarelle as part of a winter salad, then there should be more than a few vestigial shards. The salad itself was respectable enough, but I’m not going to make the long journey etc etc. The gnudi – round, gobstopper-sized gnocchi of a slightly rubbery texture – did not have the seductive subtlety such a dish needs to be a winner, because neither the ricotta nor the spinach with which they were made were of good enough quality. The bavette was acceptable, but in no way exceptional. And I couldn’t help feeling very sorry for the brill, a fine chunk of fine fish that came covered with what appeared to be white marble chippings, but that turned out to be a rubble of uncooked coconut. Utterly inedible.
And then came puddings: an olive oil cake that was devoid of any discernible flavour; a flourless chocolate cake that was what it said it was, though I’ve come to expect rather more from flourless chocolate cakes than that; and a fine granita of rhubarb and blood oranges, although I wondered where the blood oranges came from – they wouldn’t be in season in Sicily or Morocco for some weeks yet.
I’m sorry to be so relentlessly negative. It is not my way normally. I might have been inclined to be more charitable, put the performance down to a bad day, a slight slippage in technical attention, had any of the hot dishes – yes, any – arrived hot. At best, some of them were tepid, but most were actually cold. I worked very had to come up with a sympathetic explanation, but I can’t see there’s an excuse for that.
I am told by others whose judgment I trust that Parle and his team do cook extremely well on occasion. On this occasion, they did not. Perhaps they were simply having an off day, but I question the whole basis on which the menu is predicated. It seems incredibly old-fashioned to me. I thought we had got over this globetrotting foodies’ approach to cooking by now. God knows, you find much better versions of each of the dishes on the Dock Kitchen menu in restaurants that specialise in the cooking of that particular country. And where’s the personality of the chef in all of this? It’s as if he’d said, “If you don’t like the dishes from this part of the world, I’ve got some other ones you might like better from somewhere else.” The thought process behind the menu is no different from that behind a Harvester menu that reads like Around the World in 80 Dishes, which invariably come piping hot from the microwave.
And for rather more money than you would pay at a Harvester, too. The bill came to around £170, I would guess – Leithen surreptitiously paid the bill – for the three of us, of which, according to Fort’s theory of bill, half went on food and half on perfectly drinkable bottles of riesling and a rather crimson pinot noir from New Zealand. Yes, it’s cheaper than a rover ticket from France to Italy to Sri Lanka to India, but it’s still too much for me to be tempted back to the Empty Quarter of Ladbroke Grove in a hurry.
The Dock Kitchen
344 Ladbroke Grove London W10 5BU 020 8962 1610