Shit. I’m supposed to meeting t’other ‘un for an early dinner tonight before the ballet for our “demiversary” (yes, we are those people). I’ve booked a table at Quo Vadis, Soho, for half past five, but it’s already three, and I’m still in my boxers trying to decide what to wear. It’s also absolutely throwing it down outside so, in my undressed state, it hasn’t occurred to me to pick t’other ‘un up from the train station. This forces her to wade through the deluge to my flat, surprising me like an angry octopus launching itself at the walls of its tank. Getting off to a good start, then.
Things can often appear worse than they are, though, and it’s always worth bearing in mind that there’s always someone worse off than you. Sometimes, even, people much more successful than you. Sure enough, we somehow manage to get to Dean Street on time (even dropping by the Reform Club for half an hour), and I manage to keep my sweetbreads intact.
I’d chosen Quo Vadis because it’s only a fifteen-minute walk to the Royal Opera House, and because I hadn’t been since the place was cleaved in two, with one half converted into Barrafina. The proximity of the restaurant to the West End means it’s often used for a pre-theatre meal and, sure enough, at about 6.20, while we’re comfortably into our mains, a lone girl turns up and sits on the table next to us, orders a gin and tonic, before complaining that the house should never have accepted her six o’ clock booking because she was off to a show at seven. Yes, that’s how it works, love.
Ten minutes later a chap dressed in black strides in. He clearly hasn’t been here since the partition, either, because he almost marches straight into the newly-erected wall separating the truncated restaurant from Barrafina. T’other ‘un said he looked remarkably like William Sitwell, restaurant critic and editor of the Waitrose Food magazine, and it has to be said he bore a striking resemblance. It turned out he was supposed to be having dinner with gin and tonic girl, but they then had to shuffle off to the lobby so she could finish her drink and leave unceremoniously into what the menu had euphemistically described as “a spot of rain”. I like to think it was him because, that way, despite being a terrible boyfriend and a questionable journalist, I could always say I had one up on the editor of Waitrose Food by getting to the theatre on a full stomach. Little things.
Anyway, inside, we were dry and happy, having guzzled the best pre-theatre meal in London. To start, I’d chosen the octopus, shrimp & sea vegetable salad, while t’other ‘un plumped for the peach, fig, ricotta, bacon & black olive crumb. Both were pleasantly light and interesting introductions to the evening, with the octopus done so perfectly the sliced tentacles melted on my tongue. With the brown shrimp, this was discerningly complemented by the punchy samphire and seaweed, which I imagined might be the kind of salad you would be served in the Octopus’s Garden of Ringo Starr’s fevered imagination. If the cephalopod in question shared the unquestionably fine taste but cannibalistic tendencies of Hannibal Lecter.
T’other ‘un’s crumb was an altogether different affair, being much more anarchic than Ringo’s cannibal salad. The assorted ingredients were piled on top of a piece of toast and, while delicious, she complained that the sweetness of the peach, fig, and ricotta wasn’t quite balanced by the bacon and olive crumb. But then changed her mind. Make of that what you will.
This was all being knocked back with a bottle of 2015 La Balade — a Grenache, Rolle, and Syrah rosé. With a pale copper blush and crisp but mild citrus notes, it was the perfect accompaniment to our light and refreshing starters, and a welcome contrast to the richness of my main. I’d gone for cod, cockles, shrimp, and dill, while t’other ‘un, feeling bushy-tailed, went for rabbit, bacon, mustard, and sage. The cod, when it appeared, immediately struck me as looking just like one of the drawings illustrating Lindsey Bareham’s Dinner Tonight column in The Times. The cod was light, fluffy, and delicate, emerging like Skellig Michael from a rich and creamy sea, inhabited by plentiful dill, shrimp, and cockles. The force certainly awoke in this one.
The rabbit, however, was the unchallenged emperor of the evening. I was allowed to taste a morsel of its soft, white, fatty, flesh, and I immediately felt the kind of regret only Luke Skywalker could know after realising he’d snogged his sister. The mustard and sage really came out and it’s just quite difficult to do it justice with mere words. Which is a shame because, given Quo Vadis’s menu changes daily, you’ll probably never get to experience it yourself. We shared a side of “pommes frites”. They were good frites.
It was around this time, though, that I was starting to realise what was a little odd about the place. It was just too quiet. I’m not a fan of noisy and hectic restaurants — I like a spot of calm — but with the restaurant chopped in half, there just didn’t seem to be enough people in the house to create any kind of atmosphere. Granted, we’d booked a table as early as we possibly could, so it could have had a bit more of a buzz later in the night, but with only half a dozen tables it was just too intimate.
Time was running out, though, and we realised we’d better get a move on if we were going to get to Covent Garden for showtime at 7.30pm. But, much as there’s always room for dessert, there’s always time too. Which is fortunate, because Jeremy Lee’s puddings are often the highlight of a meal at Quo Vadis.
I’d been banging on about meringue since drunkenly inhaling about a dozen of the things during a General Election night buffet, and there was extra reason to dive in, the dessert menu offering a giant meringue, with walnuts and gooseberry and elderflower compote. It was exactly how I dreamt it to be — crunchy on the outside, and gooey like marshmallow in the middle — but exceeding all expectations, finished with praline walnuts, little sugary nuggets of heaven.
Not having the sweet tooth of a three-year-old Little Lord Fauntleroy, t’other ‘un opted for fig leaf ice cream with pistachio biscuits. The ice cream flavour was on the same end of the spectrum as rose petal, which is to say it was unusual, exotic, perfect for more refined palates, and unquestionably delicious. The biscuits were as you might expect and worked well in combination.
With uncharacteristic efficiency, we even managed to imbibe a couple of Americano coffees, before thundering off into the tempest fatter, happier, and £145 lighter — in plenty of time for our show. Just don’t expect anything in Waitrose Food any time soon.