The Giaconda Dining Room
9 Denmark Street
WC2 H8LS London
Tel. 020 7240 3334
Food type: Modern European
Food rating: 4/10
Nearest tube: Tottenham Court Road
Website: Giaconda Dining Room
Getting a booking at Giaconda Dining room has to be one of the trickiest things ever. You see this sweet, cosy little restaurant, hidden away on Denmark street (aka guitar district) has consistently draws in a crowd during these credit crunch days. Perhaps it is because of the pricing is affordable and sensible… and yes this includes their wine list. Perhaps it is because of the cooking here which is simple, honest, no nonsense and down to earth. Whatever the reason, the restaurant was packed on a rainy tuesday evening that we visited.
Chef-owner Paul Merrony who hails from Canberra, Australia started his culinary training very young, plying his trade as a kitchen hand at the age of 14. He soon moved to Sydney to widen his repertoire working in the (then) best restaurant in Australia, Berowra Waters. A year later Merrony left Sydney to work with the Roux brothers, working in three of their establishments. In the early 80s, with the help and support of Albert Roux, Merrony was soon working in Paris, including La Tour d’Argent where he held the position of chef de partie on the sauce. By the mid 80s, homesick, Merrony returned home where he had to juggle four jobs to make ends meet. While working at Paddington Inn, Merrony’s talent was evident and he soon opened his first restaurant, Merrony’s with the backing of the pub’s owner. The restaurant was very successful and lasted until 2004 when Merrony opened his new restaurant, Bistro 163. Then in 2007, out of the blue, Merrony mysteriously closed shop. Apparently he had moved to England to work with Peter Hall, and together they have opened the Giaconda Dining Room.
The dining room is small with black carpets to match the charcoal blinds and walls of wine. There is certainly no air of pretension here as the woody-brown tables are bare with nary a table cloth in sight. As one would expect for a restaurant this size, tables are packed very closely together but not more so than its galley kitchen which is supposedly London’s smallest according to Merrony.
Giaconda Dining Room was awarded a Bib Gourmand in the 2009 Michelin guide and this is reflected on the menu. Presented on a laminated sheet, the menu offers a mixture of French bistro, Italian and quintessential British dishes. Merrony describes the cuisine here as ‘Paul’s food’ – the food he enjoys cooking. Starters range between £5.50 to £11 (mainly £6), mains £9.50 to £27 (mainly £12) and desserts £5 to £6.50. It must also be noted that this is this is the two-armed chef menu. For those who do not get this joke, Merrony broke his arm sometime last November as a result of a cycling accident. As such, he had to modify the menu to incorporate dishes which a one armed chef could cook.
Bread in the form of white floury slices is supplied by I Camisa which were served at room temperature. These were rather chewy for my liking, if a little dry. (2/10) Along with this was a little bowl of good quality mixed olives. (4/10)
Boneless & Crisped Pigs Trotters; Eggs Mayonnaise
The pig’s trotters, the chef’s signature since his days back at Merrony was humurously described as almost boneless on the menu. With nary a bone in sight, the trotter cake was gelatinous, crisp and full of pork flavour, with the meat falling apart at the slightest push of the fork. This was a significantly better rendition than the one I had at Boxwood Cafe. Served on a bed of bitter rocket and frisee salad and boiled egg yolk, this added a refreshing background to the trotter. The egg mayonnaise, rich and actually tasting of egg was rich and deeply satisfying. (4/10)
A classical beef carpaccio had good quality, tender and (surprisingly) flavourful beef which was unfortunately drowned out by the copious amount of mayonnaise drizzled over it. I am not sure this is such a good idea given how good the beef is to begin with. Perhaps a garnish of rocket or a small amount of mustard to go with the olive oil and parmesan is all that is needed. (1/10)
Another Merrony signature, featured in this Month’s Olive magazine is the humble ‘puttanesca’ also known as ‘whore’s pasta’. Originating from Naples, this dish was conceived as a cheap, quick dish which prostitues could make in between customers using whatever ingredients they could get hold off from the larder. Here, the puttanesca is served with whole-hearted huge rigatoni which hold on to the sauce well. This was wholesome, in-your-face food with the sauce having a very good anchovy flavour and deep, hugely satisfying tomato flavour. In keeping with the spirit of the dish, Merrony uses tinned tomatoes. The sauce was slightly unbalanced however, with the acidity of the capers and the saltiness from the anchovy being slightly too prominent. (2/10)
One of the day’s special, ratatouille (now with 0% rat) was served at room temperature. What room temperature actually is defined as is subject to be debate as it was a touch too cold (room temperature of Alaska??). Served on some toast, the ratatouille was nevertheless very good with the vegetables having very good flavour and retaining good texture. (3/10)
Braised Tripe with Chorizo, Smoked Paprika & Rigatoni
For some reason, tripe is not very popular in the UK. I remember watching an episode of the Great British Menu where Nigel Haworth tried to convince some people at a local farmer’s market about the virtues of tripe only to be met with many funny faces. Nevertheless, thanks to my upbringing where my mom has fed me as much tripe as I have fillet steak, I am a big fan. A rustic, honest dish of braised tripe with chunks of chorizo and butter beans in a rich paprika-infused, garlicky tomato sauce was what the doctor had ordered. I was highly impressed with the tripe since it has a tendency to be tough and chewy if not cooked correctly. Not so here, where it was soft while still retaining some texture. I’m uncertain that the rigatoni was actually required in this dish as the butter beans themselves help to bulk up the dish. (4/10)
The duck confit was still sizzling when it arrived at the table – the skin crisp with the meat falling off the bone as you would expect. This was accompanied by some Lyonnaise potatoes cooked in duck fat which were so buttery you think that you are eating er… butter. A side serving of watercress salad (not pictured) provided a bitter counterpoint to the fattiness of this dish. (4/10)
Crumbed Ham Hock Hash; Fried Egg; Green Salad
A deceptively small, but very very filling ham hock hash had good tasting pork flavour with just the right amount of potato. The dish ate better than it looked although it could have done with a sauce of some sort. (2/10)
Grilled John Dory, Chicory and Potato Salad
A simple dish of grilled john dory had very fresh fish, correctly cooked served on a bed of chicory and new potato salad. The bitterness of the chicory and oniony chive complemented the fish well with the addition of croutons adding an interesting texture to the dish. (3/10)
Iced Nougat with Poached Strawberries & Prunes
A very clever dessert of iced nougat had plenty of nutty goodness with thin julienned orange peel adding both perfume and a bitter edge against the background of the sweet, honey-like poached strawberries and prunes. The iced nougat, despite being served a touch too cold was wolfed down in less than 30 seconds despite us brimming at the belts. (4/10)
The classic crumble was given a little twist with rosemary added to the pear and apple. This was brought to us bubbling hot with a quenelle of milk ice cream sitting on top. The crumble mix was well made with good crunch to it (I can’t begin to recount the number of flaccid crumbles I have had the misfortune of trying in the past) complementing the jammy texture of the pear and apple crumble. I absolutely loved the addition of rosemary to the dish – I personally think that apple and rosemary is one of the most underrated and underutilized combinations. (5/10)
Despite a short stand-off at the start due to a booking confusion (it must be added that this was dealt with very well and professionally), the service at Giaconda was otherwise pleasant and friendly. The chef Paul Merrony wears his heart on his apron and this is reflected in his cooking which is simple, no nonsense, good tasting food. It is not going to break any gastronomic boundaries but this is not what he is aiming for. Our dinner experience at Giaconda was highly enjoyable and highly satisfactory and I am already looking forward to a swift return visit to try out more of his menu.