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Penny Black, Chelsea

March 17th 2011
Every Wednesday evening, at a very British institution strewn with cobbled streets and fudge shops and ladies in black gowns, I would slick my hair back gently and put on a reserved smile. I would then move into the traffic of black gowns that flowed into a large hall. On each table I distinctly remember a folded card with someone’s name written in gold pen, white cloth, polished silverware, and a sky of paintings and Latin prayers that no-one paid the slightest attention to. It used to be that you could choose who you sat with; and then the Dean or Master of Ceremonies said that this wasn’t ‘in the spirit of things’, and so you made do with awkward silences and shifty glances over your shoulder for the main and dessert. That is, until the wine came and you all got completely blathered.

This is supposed to be about a cool London restaurant, isn't it? Give me a moment, please. Feelings are palpable things, rich with imagery and memories and worlds that you want to hold onto, or let go of. The places we go and see and like – it’s not all a matter of taste... or rather, taste is not coincidence... it's no more than a development of your imagination.

I’ve got my hair gently quaffed up now, and I stroll into Penny Black, Chelsea; and, yes, the nostalgia greets me before the ballet of pretty penny’s do; It’s got a nice ring to it, this place, but all I’m seeing are those days when the Champagne flowed from gilded cups, those halcyon days when I thought myself something special; and the Champagne flows now. In Penny Black, it flows with the cool chrome at the lounge & bar, and the specially commissioned Simon Claridge paintings on the walls; it flows in the old British style with a surrealist twist (they have an original Salvador Dali on the far wall, for instance), and it flows in the precision of the menu, the dialectic of the bone-coloured wine list. It’s a full on British revival, and there’s the regal red and black of it everywhere now. Look at the columnists; they’re all giving inches back to this institution, built from toad’s in holes, roasted turbot, forerib of Longhorn beef, Paddington duck and sweet things your Mum’s mum used to bring in after tea; Arctic rolls, posh jelly and bread & butter puddin’.

Out with the international then, with pan-fusion and cutely-cut vegetables that they throw on the pan for a moment and call it 'gourmet'. In with cool Britannia, unless we’re talking about the wine; a pretty good way to start the conversation, and to end it if need be. It comes by the glass, carafe and bottle, and there’s a personal bottle service for those with mean pairing skills (though the Sommelier is quite something, I tell you). She’s already pouring the light Argentinean red, and my fingers are twitching from starter to main to dessert; the music is classical, soothing, Beethovenish (every 21st century institution needs its theme tune); but the lights are too bright and so my date can’t see how my eyes dilate. ‘I know what I want’ I say; ’Roast root vegetable salad, then the Beef Wellington, potato and celeriac bake...finish it up with the Bread and butter pudding ’. She has the London Particular soup to start, Seared venison, Jerusalem artichokes, duck fat chips with a South African glass of 2008 lilac wine; Chocolate fondant & raspberry sorbet to finish.

Verdict: The signature Beef Wellington was the best I ever tasted, honestly; perfectly done medium-rare with the puff pastry layer so succulent that I’m calling the chef a genius. They say he worked with the legendary Oliver Peyton at Atlantic Bar and Grill. But this inspiration is all his own. The chocolate fondant, stolen signature dessert, drips off the spoon, tight grip as she tries to steal it back, lips-first. Hey, every institution needs its trademark dish, and these are theirs. You extrapolate between the two and what you get is a haze of sensory nostalgia.

People – British or not – if I told you this place does a magnanimous, stoic job of bringing hearty British food back to the faithless London gastro-scene, I’d be speaking figuratively, swayed by my own particular blend of reality and fiction. Still, you can’t help but go again; not after this.

www.thepennyblack.com/

212 Fulham Road
Chelsea, SW10 9PJ
0845 838 8998

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