Monday, March 23, 2009

London Restaurant Week #1: A Night at Daphne's

Daphne's Restaurant
photo credit

Memories of the "tenderliest" of boeuf bourguignons and a painfully delicious cheese course at Artisanal along with a night full of swanky-sushi-decadence at the infamous Brazilian-Japanese fusion house of cool Sushi Samba, both in New York, were only the final impetus in convincing me I needed reservations for a couple of places here in London during this year's Restaurant Week. My own food-obsessed nature had already done most of the work a long time before that. Thank God for Spring- and thank God for Restaurant Week - a much needed and delicious distraction in these last weeks of pregnancy!

A Little History and Thought on Restaurant Weeks
why NYC is still better, but London is climbing the ranks

Piggy-backing off of the big apple's much-lauded week of affordable feasting which dates back to 1992 and was intended originally for visitors and officials storming New York for the Democratic National Convention, London's version is comparatively paired down.

For one thing, it has only been around for three years, is twice as long (which provides more meal times, but less prestige,
if that's your bag), and cannot boast (IMHO) anything near to the list of glitterati-fine-dining to be found in Manhattan. Despite this and in conjunction with the sheisty economy, it does actually offer a few very compelling reasons to search out the hidden but nevertheless present foody gems here in London town, and, for once, prices those meals right where they should be.

London may be dangling a praise-worthy number of Michelin-stars before the pirana-esque jaws of the ever-growing yet cost-conscious foody community, but no matter what they do, they just can't offer the same ambiance and New-Yorkness that places like Cafe des Artistes, L'Impero, Tabla, or Nobu NY have running through their veins.

Ignoring the usual claims of limited choice, paired-down entrees, hostile servers and hob-knobbing with riff-raff, I made two reservations this year - the first of which was for a Sunday dinner, last night. The second was more of a wishful-thinking outing in the sense that I really don't know whether I'll even be up for going out to dinner in a week's time, especially on a crowded Friday night, given Ludovictus' growing size. But it is at a Michelin-starred restaurant (a rare treat in these shady economic times!), so maybe I'll suck it up and carry my swollen-footed-self over there just to say I've been.

Besides, Matt and I have kind of an unspoken agreement that it is a good thing to try to cram in as many romantic dates as we can between now and mid April. :)

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A Night at Daphne's Restaurant

tucked away on Chelsea's beautiful Draycott Avenue - tasteful and tasty Daphne's
photo credit

I had originally booked a table at Boisdale of Belgravia, but having read it was a disappointment I switched to what promised to be a treat: Daphne's Restaurant in Chelsea / South Kensington.

I was first swayed over to Daphne's because they mentioned grilled rabbit on their menu. To me, if a place serves something as simple and delicious as grilled rabbit, it is either very good or someone is in over his head in the kitchen. With a 3-course dinner offering for only GBP25.00 per person, everything about this dinner already screamed "great," but much to my surprise, Daphne's upped the anty and even went so far as to offer a complimentary glass of wine with the restaur
ant week offer, something that no other establishment I'd looked at did.

Daphne's is a "modern Italian restaurant" which means very little these days. It seems like there are
modern Italian restaurants on every corner, all specializing in this pasta or that risotto and offering up copious amounts of less-than-pleasant things like olive oil gelato and all decorating with bad frescoes and rosemary topiaries. Despite the restaurant's stucco walls, the cliche did not stick: Daphne's is the first restaurant I've walked into in London that felt sophisticated and exciting without being pretentious or trendy. A holding of the Caprice Restaurant Group, its sister restaurants are some of the most well-known and celebrated in London (think The Ivy and Scott's), and yet, this newest Caprice acquisition manages to maintain an understated luxury and warm efficiency in service that some of the more (more being a key word here, because Daphne's is frequented by that crowd) celebrity-ridden eating establishments are happy to lose.

After taking our coats and showing us to our table, the maitre d', having noticed Ludovictus, offered me an extra cushion for my back, which I was both taken aback by (Customer service!? Am I dreaming?!
) and delighted with. The entire restaurant smelled of fresh lillies (a giant bouquet of which was situated next to our table), and the tables, though small, were not overcrowded by useless centerpieces.

The waiters were fast, friendly, knowledgeable and - all Italian. There was no snickering when we ordered tap water, as we always do. No condescension when they noticed our American accents or that of the other couple we were with. Ladies were always served first, coffees were good (despite not coming with dessert as promised), water plentiful, and we were not rushed through
the meal by any means. The atmosphere was calm, quiet, and relaxed. We felt at home to joke and chat, but didn't have to scream over the (many) families with children around us celebrating mother's day. Amazing. And all that for 50quid a couple.

I don't think I'd dare hope for more, even in New York.

What we had:

Nibbles: Complimentary, home-baked breads including a delicious rosemary foccacia which I greedily devoured.

First Course: Antipasti
I started with Calamaretti Fritti con Aioli (baby fried calamari with aioli). Ridiculously tender, freshly and lightly fried, and I don't even like Aioli (mayo isn't my thing) but I ate almost the entire generous blob on my plate. Matt had the Zuppa di Fagioli, which he finished so quickly and liked so much I
didn't even get to try it!
One of our friends had the calamari like me and the other had a simple Arugula and parmigiano salad, which she seemed pleased with.

Second Course: Secondi Piatti
Sadly, they were not offering the grilled rabbit on their restaurant week menu. Matt and I both opte
d for the pan-fried Plaice with mushrooms and aubergines. The fish was perfectly cooked, but I thought in general the dish was just ok. I wish I'd gotten the chicken because it looked amazingly cooked and the spinach that accompanied it was quite a hit.

Our friends had Pollo alla Griglia con Spinaci e Pepperoncino (Grilled Chicken with Spinach and pepperoncino) and Ravioli di Zucca con Amaretti e Salvia (squash ravioli with amaretti and sage). Both seemed more than happy to clean their plates.

Third Course: Dolci
When it came to dessert I was slightly disappointed that they were not offering the Polenta Blood Orange Cake their online menu boasted. I happen to love cakes made with semolina, as you will see in tomorrow's post. But nevermind, we pressed on.

Three out of four of us were tempted by the Frittele al Cioccolato con gelato all'Arancia (Venetian Frittele with orange ice cream), despite not being sure what they were other than something "fried." The last, got a lonely but rather amazing tiramisu.

The Frittele were, much to our surprise, little Italian doughnut holes. At first I was a little
disappointed when I saw my plate (I didn't want doughnuts!) but then I took the first bite. These were the softest, doughiest, yummiest chocolatey-filled doughnut holes in the world! And they were warm. And the blood-orange ice cream worked perfectly with them. I think it was my favorite course of the entire meal!

tiramisu & selection of gelati

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Daphne's Restaurant
112 Draycott Avenue
London SW3 3AE

Tel: 020 7589 4257

All photos from the Daphne's website, unless otherwise noted.
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  1. As The Day approaches for you, it's wonderful to hear that you and Matt are enjoying yourselves. What a lovely dinner! It's a shame they didn't have two of the dishes that you were anticipating (rabbit . . . mmmmm) but from your descriptions of the food and restaurant, they didn't take away from the experience. Thanks for sharing the night!

  2. This was such a fun post to read. I share your disappointment about the rabbit not being available! I have driven way out of my way for certain menu items that turned out not to be available on the night I was there. But like you, I'm usually cheered by something else delicious on the menu. :)

  3. Looks like a wonderful way to while away an evening. The meal sounds lovely, and I think its neat that the staff was attentive enough to get you an extra pillow to make sure you were able to enjoy your meal. While I've eaten in NY and London, my dining adventures in NY are not extensive enough to make your comparisons, but dining in London was always interesting to me, and it might have been the places I chose, but they were warm, relaxing (no telling us to move along as they needed the table) and it really catered to the whole experience. I love the neighborhoods you selected, I had many a wonderful walk exploring those parts of London. Sigh, the memories =)

  4. Sounds like a lovely meal! I'm looking forward to some fun dining in London soon!

  5. I'm a big fan of Daphne's. That conservatory is great for a long lunch in the spring/summer.