Chelsea gets some traditional Brit grub in a sleek modernist setting

 
Timothy Barber
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The Penny Black
212 Fulham Road, SW10 9PJ
www.thepennyblack.com
FOOD ****
SERVICE ***
ATMOSPHERE ****

Cost per person without wine: £40

IT sounds like the name of a pub, doesn’t it? For some reason, the image I had in my head of a restaurant called The Penny Black was some dark, old-fashioned tavern, a place that felt as though it had been around since the first Penny Black stamp was posted (1840, as any philatelist will tell you), serving up beef Wellington and toad in the hole with foaming tankards of stout.

In fact, it’s an understated, crisply modern place in a slightly hard-to-get-to bit of Chelsea (near the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, it’s an equally long walk from Fulham Broadway and South Kensington tube stations). The name comes from some artworks – Warholesque screen prints of the famous stamp – that the owners acquired and liked enough to name their new restaurant after.

The prints are on the wall around the tidy lounge area at the entrance, where a couple of sofas mean you can wait in comfort for your guests, drink in hand, if you’re early or they’re late – a touch that you wouldn’t necessarily expect in a pretty small restaurant. Equally, while the restaurant occupies a thin, windowless room, it’s been well arranged to feel comfortable, spacious and light, with soft-furnishings – including a carpet, praise the Lord – designed to absorb sound and keep the dining experience intimate. It’s a sign the team, who’ve previously been involved in the Atlantic Bar & Grill among other places, know what they’re doing, and it feels classy.

The ye olde heritage aspect I’d anticipated from the name is actually found on the menu – in fact, toad in the hole and beef Wellington are both present, along with bubble and squeak (served with a pork chop), rack of lamb with cauliflower cheese and shin of beef stew topped with suet pastry. Hearty, old-fashioned, pea-souper-and-top-hat food that depends heavily on the excellence of its ingredients, which the Penny Black team promises are as local as can be.

I went for lunch, when the £19 three course menu offers good value, especially given the number of dishes offered (eight starters, seven mains, six puds plus cheese). I thought about starting with some Maldon oysters, was tempted by corned beef hash with egg and pickled onions – ah, that heritage thing again – but curiosity got the better of me with the idea of aubergine-stuffed onion. This was delicious – an onion baked in its skin, filled with a rich aubergine mulch containing courgette chunks, plenty of peppery herbs and a bit of refreshing citric tang. My friend’s scallops, served with pea puree and black pudding, were spot on, but neither dish required the handful-sized clumps of lettuce that garnished them.

If that big onion with its thick, piping-hot filling seemed more a dish for autumn than for spring, my fish pie compounded the effect – if was vast, with a sturdy morass of turbot, monkfish and potato sitting beneath a hefty puff pastry. Which isn’t to say it didn’t taste nice enough, but it was hard work.

My friend’s roast halibut, on the other hand, was a picture of spring freshness – a moist, flavoursome slab of perfectly cooked fish resting on a pile of glowing-green asparagus, with a simple lemon and butter sauce.

The pudding menu pretty much comes waving a Union Jack and singing Jerusalem – rice pudding with strawberry jam, bread and butter pudding, raspberry baked Alaska, jelly with a gin and tonic sorbet (unfortunately that one’s on the dinner menu only). I went for the eccentric-sounding chocolate terrine with “muddled strawberries” – a slice of smooth chocolate almost-mousse wrapped in hard white chocolate, with a ramekin’s worth of stewed, jammy strawberries. It was as delightful as it was intriguing, and I’d go back just to work my way through the rest of puds. My friend chose the cheeseboard, and received a wooden chopping block bearing five English cheeses, a briquette of quince jelly and enough crackers to feed an army.

The Penny Black opened in February, and its understated, unfussy approach should be welcomed, particularly in this neck of the woods where things can tend towards the showy. It feels classy, and I rather think it is.