Sandwiched half way between The River Cafe in one direction and The Harwood Arms in another, we’re spoilt for choice when it comes to delicious food on our doorstep. If you’re in the mood for something a little lower key (and less budget busting), you can also find numerous bistros, pizzerias and smart gastropubs in and around the Fulham Road, packed with locals throughout the week and showing little sign of being affected by the recession.
Manson has been around for a little while now, and falls into that category of smart, laid back local dining with a menu that has aspirations above its informal decor and straightforward, friendly service. Every review I’ve read so far makes some kind of comedy reference to the name, suggesting it smacks of serial killers and deranged recording artists, so I’m going to steer clear of that. Suffice to say that Manson is the owner’s surname. His head chef Chef Gemma Tuley trained under Gordon Ramsay and this shows in the elegant presentation of well-sourced ingredients. Food for The Beautiful People, although possibly not the kind Marilyn Manson had in mind (sorry . . .)
To celebrate my Mum’s birthday, we headed down there on a quiet weekday evening. Arriving earlier than expected, we needn’t have worried about reserving a table as the restaurant was only about a quarter full at 8.15pm. Candles twinkled invitingly from a row of cosy looking leather banquettes in the window, but as a three (my Dad’s away tasting wine in Bordeaux under the pretext of work . . .) we opted against these in favour of a central table with plenty of elbow space. From there we had the chance to survey all of Manson’s rustic charm – burnished mirrors running across the whole back wall, moody low lighting and a gorgeous wooden bar where fresh green apples, oranges and loaves of bread nestle in their own compartments.
After we’d ordered a bottle of something cold, crisp and fairly priced, our waitress brought over a basket of bread. I’ve been thinking about what I should include in my restaurant reviews since writing up Dean Street Townhouse and Trullo, and decided that, as the littleloaf, it would be rude not to include a round up of the bread, something often dismissed or ignored by other reviewers. Manson’s offering was a mixture of freshly cut crusty wholemeal and cubes of focaccia. I don’t imagine it had been made in-house, and the focaccia lacked that light crumb and slight salty ooze of grease you get with a freshly baked batch, but both options were perfectly good, and arrived with a smooth pat of salty butter.
It got me thinking, maybe the bread basket is a good sign of where you’re going with a restaurant’s food, because moving onto the actual dishes it was a similar story - tasty, considered ingredients cooked well, but lacking in that extra special element which takes a meal from the background of an evening to the main event. Having said that, my starter of grilled squid with potato, purple sprouting broccoli, garlic and chilli was very impressive – curls of charred creamy tentacles contrasting with the richness of the greens and brought to life with a spicy kick. It looked and tasted spot on. My Mum agreed that the squid was a good dish, and Carniverous Boyfriend’s (CB) snails on toast disappeared from the plate pretty quickly.
As did his rare rib-eye and chips. Served with chips on a bed of roasted carrots it was juicy and well-cooked – the quality of ingredients shining through simple cooking. My Mum’s sole with spinach and mussels was nicely presented with good clean flavours, although I think I’ve seen a similar dish on half a dozen menus in as many months. My tiger prawns were probably the biggest disappointment, and this isn’t a huge complaint; just a minor gripe when Manson have proved they have the potential to make good dishes great. They were nicely done, with sweet chargrilled flesh, but my plate contained just four slightly sad specimens, heads removed, but bizarrely left on the plate as a kind of macabre decoration. Possibly an attempt to justify the £20 price tag.
Dessert was a winner. CB and I looked no further than a pair of chocolate brownies with salted caramel ice cream and honeycomb, while my Mum went for her standard camomile tea (I definitely didn’t inherit my sweet tooth from her). The brownie was gooey, dark and delicious, while the honeycomb provided crunch against the smooth cold ice cream. I’m not sure why the brownie had raisins in – the juicy plumpness of the fruit jarred slightly with the super sweet honeycomb crisps – but I’m not going to complain.
Which is probably my overall sentiment for the meal. The room was buzzy, the service friendly (if a little haphazard), the company happy and the food well-cooked from good ingredients. We had a really lovely birthday evening and were home within 10 minutes of paying the bill. But the high aspirations of this restaurant come with a high price tag considering the location, and I think there are probably a lot more restaurants where you could get a truly incredible meal at for the same kind of price. Maybe it was our mid-week timing, maybe I’m getting spoilt by the amazing places popping up round London every day now, or maybe Manson hasn’t quite cracked it.
If you’ve been, I’d love to know what you think.
I’ve got a confession to make. I’m a little bit in love with Soho House Group.
I like their easy, comfortable style, the way they mix modern touches with the decadence of a bygone era, the relaxed efficiency (really) of their staff and the simple tastiness of their menus. Last November I spent three glorious days in Soho House Berlin with carniverous boyfriend (CB), sipping champagne in the free standing bath, sinking into deep velvety sofas, indulging in cocktails and feasting on classic dishes.
So, when my six year (!) anniversary with CB came round, I jumped at the excuse to try another outpost of my new obsession.
Babington House sounded incredible, but slightly out of our price range once we’d factored in travel, accommodation and a button-busting romantic meal. Step up Dean Street Townhouse. I read on the Mr and Mrs Smith website (another favourite travel brand) that if Dean Street’s older, more stately, sister Babington House attracts reclusive, romantic and poetic types with its deeply rustic Somerset charms, then the Townhouse plays the youthful role of sultry Soho girl about town, and this sounded spot on. We wanted somewhere fun and vibrant, and the fact that we’d be booking a hotel in the city we already live in made it feel extra indulgent.
The hotel was everything we dreamed it would be – Farrow and Ball paint on the walls, a huge bed piled high with downy pillows, a bathroom you could while away hours in, fluffy white bathrobes, luxurious Cowshed products, and a mini-bar packed with treats. The ultimate romantic bolt-hole and an oasis in the heart of London. But this is a food blog, so I’m guessing you want to hear about what we ate?
Dean Street Townhouse dining room
The restaurant, much like the one in Berlin, is that fabulous mixture of shabby and chic – a huge zinc topped bar runs the length of the room where rows of white table cloths contrast with the more relaxed, clubby feeling low slung velvet armchairs. The latter being perfect for an after dinner nightcap/snooze, but less good to eat a meal from. On arrival we were led to a gorgeously romantic fireside set of armchairs, clearly chosen for their moody dark lighting and intimate setting for our romantic meal, but after a couple of minutes straining to read the menu in the half light as the chairs threatened to engulf us, we asked if we could be moved to the buzzy, bright main area. Cocktails and snoozing could come later.
The menu is a joy to read. Good, old fashioned British cooking with a modern twist, it lacks the elaborate wording of so many restaurants today and settles instead on simple descriptions of comfort food from a bygone era. I could have eaten pretty much anything on there. Except the manx queenies with hedge bedstraw. Having no idea what this bizarre sounding concoction entailed, and feeling sure in my convictions that it wouldn’t be something I wanted even if I did, I plumped for the crab salad, sipped my sauvignon and looked dreamily into CB’s eyes…
Only to spot an incredible dish of scallops being delivered to the neighbouring table. I shamefacedly called over our waiter who explained that yes, Manx Queenie is in fact the affectionate local name for a queen scallop from the Isle of Man. I amended my order immediately and was rewarded with a plate of tiny bite sized scallops in their shell, decorated with a sprinkling of herbs and the sharp citrus kick of seasonal blood orange. CB’s twice baked smoked haddock souffle was the complete opposite of this delicate dish, and not particularly beautiful to look at, but the smooth creaminess of the salty, smoky fish against a buttery chive sauce can only be described as nursery food heaven.
For mains, my protein loving other half opted for a hearty rare fillet steak which arrived oozing blood and beautfully cooked. My fillet of sea bass with fennel, Poole cockles and dill had crisp skin, delicate, meaty white flesh and melt-in-the-mouth fennel. The cockles were a bit gritty, but by the time I’d eaten enough to ascertain whether this was a one-off, or a major issue, there were hardly enough left to send them back.
The wine list at Dean Street Townhouse is perfectly sensible, with some more affordable options by both glass and carafe which meant we could happily mix and match to our very different choices of food. We were left for a nice pause after our main courses to chat, survey the room and steadily sip our wine before the temptation of pudding drew us back to the menu. We shared two puddings. The first was an incredible melting middled chocolate fondant, topped with pistachio ice cream which did exactly what it said on the tin. But for me the real winner was hazlenut ice cream with toffee sauce. Dished up in a little silver dish reminiscent of those they used to serve ice cream bombes in at Pizza Express when I was little (don’t know what triggered that memory!), this was a sweet, creamy, grown-up version of a childhood treat with a little jug of butterscotch sauce so sweet it made your teeth itch. Topped with rich whipped cream it was the kind of shared pudding that makes you eat twice as fast as normal to make sure your other half doesn’t get all the good bits. Or is that just me?
After dinner we retired to our room and ordered up cocktails on room service in a moment of ultimate decadence. The perfect end to a perfect evening. If you’re looking for a little romance, and some delicious food thrown into the mix, Dean Street Townhouse is the perfect spot. I’ve already found the man I love, but this is just the beginning of my Soho House affair.
Dean Street Townhouse bedroom