Duck Soup has clearly been taking lessons from the Russell Norman school of design. Whereas Polpo et al look as though a lot of money has been spent on making it look as though nothing has been spent on getting that shabby chic look perfect, however, this looks like the real thing. No money has been spent on decor. The walls are white painted brick because they couldn’t afford plaster. Or coloured paint. The wiring is bare as chasing it into the walls would be pointless; there being no plaster.
Nor, it would seem, has any money been spent on staff who are able to take down bookings. Or execute orders. Don’t get me wrong, the waiting staff weren’t rude. Far from it; they were uniformly friendly and cheery. They just weren’t very good at waiting tables.
I'd called a day before and booked for six. The one table that seats this number was booked, so we were sat at the counter. Much better, I was told, than stuck at a table away from the action. With such a large number, I'd been assured that we'd get the corner of the bar, so that we could all sit around in a U shape and talk to each other; easily able to share the plates.
I might have been given the assurance, but nothing had been noted in the booking. The corner seats were all taken, so in a line we were sat; neither end being able to talk to the other, conversation stilted, unable to share anything. I was hardly best pleased.
It is never good to start at a restaurant in a bad mood. To come back from here, you need everything to be perfect. So I ordered a few nibbles to while away the time until we had all gathered. The fried courgettes arrived and were magnificent. So magnificent that we ordered more. Like the olives and cheese that I had ordered with the first set of courgettes, this second batch never did materialise.
When everyone was lined up, we ordered the real meal. In fact, we ordered one of everything. The shortish menu had five starters and three mains. There were six of us, all the dishes sounded good, so the maths worked. The idea, like Polpo and its siblings, is that you order lots and the dishes come as prepared. One starter turned up within about half an hour. More food came out of the kitchen. It all passed us by. A couple more starters arrived, but we had been here for the best part of an hour or more by now and my initial irritation was festering to feverish proportions. Then two things happened: the quail arrived and the table became free.
This wasn’t just any old quail mind. Oh no: this was the mother of all quails. A Goliath of a quail. A quail that had been working out at Virgin Active; big, firm, meaty. Blackened on the outside, moist, tender, juicy on the in, wonderfully cooked in pomegranate and rose water. As perfect a coturnix coturnix as I have ever had. (Aside from the second that, having been successfully ordered, miraculously arrived.)
And the table: instead of six of us strung in a line, we could mix. The food came and we could share; we could talk; we could laugh; we could order far, far more food than we really needed, or could ever possibly eat. The place became fun. The Doors playing on the gramophone (children, go and look both of those up on the interweb) stopped being overbearing and became ironic. The earnest young men and women trying to wait our table went from being comically inept, to just being: occasionally bringing us victuals, but mainly just not there.
And the food just got better: well maybe nothing could top the quail, but the cockles, the buffalo mozzarella, the ceps and parmesan, the fritto misto (aside from the deep fried slice of blood orange, which was just plain odd), the cheeses, the crème caramel and especially the plaice all tried valiantly. That they failed has nothing to do with them being bad. They were all uniformly gorgeous, they just could not match that quail (or those quails, for the second was as splendid as the first).
The place had been recommended to us by a master carver at Brindisa in Borough Market. Whilst he would be appalled at the ham-fisted nature of their carving of the whole leg of Serrano sitting on the bar, he was spot on when he said that the wines were exceptional: regional French, interesting grape varieties and keenly priced.
The bill, like the waiting, was hit and miss: things that we had ordered but that did not arrive appeared on the bill, but drink that had arrived did not. As the menu changes every day, the bill doesn’t itemise the food, so it really is impossible to tell if we'd over- or under- paid.
Really to go far, to try and out-Polpo Polpo, the amateurish nature of the service needs to be eradicated: imitation being the best form of flattery, I have no doubt that Mr Norman would love the idea, love the place and would certainly love the food. He would, however, be appalled by the monumental uselessness of the staff outside of the kitchen.