Truly delicious ending to a tale of three courses
PUBLISHED: 16:10 14 February 2013 | UPDATED: 16:26 14 February 2013
The Foundry's interior gives one no great expectations, but it hit the spot after a trip to the Dickens Museum
So I’d read Clare Tomalin’s recent biography of Dickens, and I’d been dipping into the Collected Letters and only just come to the end of Judith Flanders’s Victorian City – all about London in the time of Dickens. Consequently, was I ready to visit the newly refurbished Dickens Museum in Doughty Street, Holborn? Why of course I was.
This is one of many of the great man’s addresses in the capital, though most of them are now long vanished. More than £3million has been spent to restore the place to how it might have appeared when it was actually his home – where he wrote Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and a goodly chunk of Nicholas Nickleby.
It’s a modest building, as Georgian terraces go, but very charming and homely. Being so intimate, however, it hardly lends itself to the infestation of tourists that was there when my wife and I added to their number: Germans taking notes, Americans photographing every square inch … and the British – in search of the lavatories, and maybe a tea room.
Nor was the atmosphere helped a great deal by the constant stridency of next door’s burglar alarm, which no one seemed inclined to stifle.
But there is much here to quicken the heart: the velvet covered lectern, built to Dickens’s own design, and from which he delivered his legendary public readings. His ivory-handled cutthroat razor and hair brushes. A brass-buttoned court suit which he wore when presented to Queen Victoria … and best of all: his writing desk, from which all the wonder flowed. I broke the rules and lightly touched its surface: it simply had to be done.
His chair was meant to be there as well, but it wasn’t – no one appeared to know why. The whole adventure is quite pleasingly amateur, though it has to be said that God only knows where the three million quid went. The gift shop is tiny and generally tasteful, with the possible exception of the £10 Charles Dickens Action Figure, which comes with poseable limbs, hat and “removable quill pen”.
And following culture, I always require food. There’s not much in Holborn – a reasonable wine bar called Vats, and Cigalo – an overrated and overpriced Spanish, both in Lamb’s Conduit Street … but I didn’t fancy those.
So we made our way to Camden Town – where Dickens also once lived, when still young and penurious, and where too he installed the family of poor old Bob Cratchit, in a dark basement that now might quite possibly fetch what it cost to refurbish the Dickens Museum.
The Foundry in Delancey Street used to be Caponata – very favourably reviewed here about 18 months ago. The décor is unchanged – still quite quirky, and oddly appealing. The basic structure is extremely unpromising: concrete pillars and ceiling and a plate glass window.
But we have acid yellow bar stools, red lined pendants and an eclectic selection of splodgy pictures on the walls that would not look out of place in that long and silent shiny ground floor corridor in the Royal Free Hospital: Sunday painters’ paradise. It’s all rather as if someone has been given the brief to quickly jolly up a miniature underground car park.
The piece de resistance, however, is a tall vertical indoor garden, predominantly ferns, and a skylit rear room flanked by massive planked doors that would not disgrace a fire station: in the evenings, these open to reveal the famed venue for live music – the actual ‘Foundry’ that now is the name of the whole caboodle.
The restaurant is still Italian owned and run, but the menu now is rather looser. It’s a damn good menu, though – and everything is freshly prepared on the premises, as the very friendly waiter and waitress were eager to indicate.
There is still the signature caponata (aubergine) as a starter, though I was going for linguine with swordfish, cherry tomatoes and mint: interesting, and quite piggy for a starter, no? And my wife was going for burrata (a rather superior mozzarella) with Parma ham, tomatoes, leaves and a balsamic reduction. And while we were waiting for that lot – and sipping large and peary glasses of Prosecco – the waiter came along to tell me that chef regretted he could not serve me the linguine, as there was no swordfish.
So I invited chef to let his imagination rip: they had the linguine, yes? So why doesn’t he surprise me? The waiter seemed to like the idea, and beetled off to apprise chef of this latest wheeze. And chef came up trumps: how would it be with salmon marinaded in whisky and dill, cream and cherry tomatoes…? Sounded sublime – and Lordy, it was too. Really rather sumptuous, and – although generous for a starter – fatally moreish, as well as visually delightful: a medley of glowing pinks and reds.
My wife’s equally large starter was gobbled with relish: ample curls of perfectly dry Parma ham and very fresh leaves … the burrata, though, not quite so obscenely yielding and oozy as it ought to be.
We parted from the strictly Italian with our mains: my wife had the day’s special – sea bass in a crab bisque. I thought that would be a very good bet, for I remembered from my last visit here that they are rather good at seafood reductions: crab, lobster, prawn – as well as smoking their own fish.
She was not disappointed: firm fillet, and a heady bisque. I was having – at £19.50, the most expensive dish on the menu – fillet of venison with Parma ham and wild mushrooms en croute, with a chestnut puree and green beans: a venison Wellington, in short – this reminding me of the last time I had ordered such a thing, in the now mercifully defunct Walnut in West Hampstead: it had been entirely inedible.
This, however, was a sight to behold – and worth the maybe 40 minutes we had been waiting: a perfectly golden crusted lozenge – the pink fillet shyly winking within, the wrapping of ham and finely chopped mushroom just so. The beans were bright and al dente, the chestnut puree nuggety and creamy. Now hand-cut chips are all very well … but God, I do wish places would take the time to hand-peel them as well. They seem to think of potato peel as earthy and rustic whereas all it is is an age-old and vital ingredient of pigswill.
My wife wasn’t going to have a pudding … and then she saw vanilla macaroon and chestnut cream served on a chocolate rock with vanilla custard … and rather thought she was going to have a pudding.
I was intrigued as to what a ‘chocolate rock’ might be, and idly reached across for a taste. It sure looked igneous: misshapen and craggy. Then you hack off a chunk, put it into your mouth … and heaven simply engulfs you: just terrific. The macaroon was so-so … but the chocolate rock…! The consistency of Aero, but coldish – before it floods the palate with lascivious wonder. Had I been young and thin and needy-looking – not something of which I have recently been accused – I might well have summoned the waiter and begged him humbly: “Please sir … I want some more…”
Joseph Connolly’s latest novel, ENGLAND’S LANE, is published by Quercus as a hardback and an ebook. All previous restaurant reviews may be viewed on the website www.josephconnolly.co.uk.