There are two Toms in London who appeal to me. Both are men of food and both have legends written about their conquests in the kitchen. “Why yes of course I would like to sample an all expense paid meal at Tom Ilic” when their hype department called. Can we stop calling this food blagging and call it a blag-pass instead? It sounds rather more palatable.
Read at your peril.
I know very little about Wandsworth, or much of south London for that matter. I am however aware of its significance in culinary legend since it is home to Chez Bruce and the very same site was formerly Harveys; the restaurant where a certain Scotsman shadowed the effervescent gastro genius of his time. The same genius who later retired from the kitchen, dramatically renouncing his three coveted stars. A different era altogether, I’m sure I would have enjoyed eating food made with Mr White’s incendiary pans.
North of the Common is Tom Ilic – the restaurant widely acknowledged as the frugal man’s gastro getaway. I had arrived for a Thursday night dinner, the rain pissing down and soaking into the bottoms of my trousers. I was greeted with a humble setting not unlike an 80’s hotel lobby, and firmly rooted in reality. The sombre tone was a welcomed change from the rhythmic dribble outside the door. I sank into the armless chair and the rain which followed me inside, slowly but surely soaked into the carpeted floor. The resourceful ambiance was apparent from moment I walked in, and the economy was pleasing when I saw the prices on the menu. £16.50 for two set dinner courses – palatable in today’s climate. The ala carte describes a similar story with three courses made from attractive measurements: £7/£13/£5. The inviting prices were attached to delectable descriptions, both seemingly out of sync. Started had sautéed sweetbreads boudin blanc & truffle; Cured, roasted & tartar of Salmon; Mains included trio of lamb; baked fillet of cod with aioli and anchovy fondue and a saddle of rabbit with a tempura of frog legs. I was in wanderlust of what was to come, wary though, since I have been fooled by words before.
We start with a salad of Cornish crab with avocado and a chilled gazpacho.
I can still taste crunchy shells, I interpreted that positively suggesting fresh, handpicked crabmeat. The fragrant seafood leaked juicy flavours into the gazpacho, which was an appetisingly raw vegetable flavour; the zing was completed with a oily mouthfeel, to which I guess is olive oil. Heavy in garlic and a mild peppery end – the cold of the dish cooled the intensity of the soup, with avocadoes bringing a creaminess to texture. It was a light start, one that I enjoyed although I noted the sharply marinated celeriac at the bottom. Too much acidity and it was killing the mellow crab and gazpacho dynamic. I scrap to the side.
The alternative starter was seared scallops with couscous, grapefruit with lemongrass vinaigrette.
The scallops were seared so well it was almost bovine, the prevailing seafood was contrasted well against the cool acidity of the grapefruit and in the harmony of that balance was an appreciably simple scoop of coucous which soaked up all the flavours.
I can’t quite decide if I want to like either dishes or not as both didn’t excite the buds but I am leaning toward the former. The first mains to arrive were the fillet of kettyle Beef, Braised Oxtail ravioli, horseradish soufflé, roast bone marrow and spring vegetables. (£15)
The marrow was fattiliciously flavoursome; I spread the fully matured blobs onto bread and it was miles more exciting that the starters. The next element was tremendously good oxtail ravioli, and what a great choice of cut (offal?) as well. Deep beefiness, a silken texture to go with vanilla like fragrance, so far so good – I was prepared for a big time fillet. But those hopes were dashed with something overcooked; it was verging on being well done when we had asked for it to be medium rare, merely ordinary meat finished with a very tarty jus. The final element of this dish was the horseradish soufflé, digging in, it looked like a cheese puff and it gave off a sharp aroma. Tasting it had me popping eyeballs as it knocked the intensometer off the scales. It was so rich, so sour, so cheesy that I could not stomach more than a couple of bites – the whole roof of my mouth suddenly felt like it was on fire, horseradish smoke was coming out from my nose….
A difficult dish to call, I think it was trying to do too much. Better cooked meat with more ravioli and marrow, less of the tart and soufflé would have had me singing its praises, instead of fanning the flames.
Next: Assiete of Pork from the British Isles, Chorizo, white cabbage, caramalised apple. (£13)
A rather complex looking dish, lots of elements and it must be said that for the price, this is an achievement in itself.
There is an assortment of cuts on this dish, and I was sampling the different ‘regions’ by spinning the plate around. Starting with the far left hand side, and we have belly of pork, a little too firm for fat, I felt very concious about chewing on fat. Moving to the right, we have a fried pig’s head roll resting on top of trotter cake (I think) – This combo was very good; buttery, matured flavours fully enraptured in an oily coating. I didn’t quite agree with the next combination of very bloody tasting black pudding resting on top a very nicely caramalised apple. The mash tasted too processed and the crowning pork fillet was tough and forgettable. Things got a bit worse as the sour cabbage was too sour and it overpowered all meatiness in the dish. Overall I felt that this dish, again, tried to do too much as conflicting elements were pulling it apart. Parts of it was good, but the lack of focus made it a chore to eat.
We finished the meal with a satisfying ginger infused crème brulee. A runny custard that had pure sugary goodness, the madeline verging on being awesome but the highlight of the dish – and the meal – was the warming rhubarb compote with a citrusness that was reminiscent of a natural 7up fizz, so ethereal that it evoked memories of Peter Pan wishing for a colourful meal.
Overall, a tough one to call, ‘He loves me, he loves me not’. There were flashes of brilliance which grabbed me by the scruff; and then there were moments of flaccidity that released me from the same hold. Bogged down with too much on one plate, things were simply overdone. Let’s not forget the emphasis on value though, and for the price, Tom Ilic is a great local restaurant. But that’s where it stands for me, merely a good local, not enough genius at play to compel me to come back for more. I’m all for value but I feel that one need not bombard to impress, sometimes less is indeed very much more.
The Gist of It
Tom Ilic Official Site
123 Queenstown Rd SW8 3RH 020 7622 0555
£40 per person and a bellyful.
Verdict: Excellent value for money, but some dishes had too much which made eating it a little distracting.