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Thursday 21 March 2013

London Restaurant Review - Gallery Mess

Words and Photography by Felicity Spector

Sloane Square. It’s not exactly known for its buzzing restaurant scene - not, that is, until the newest outpost of the Corbin and King empire set up camp on the far side of the square, its crimson canopies instantly looking part of the Chelsea scene.

But walk a little further to the top of the Kings Road, and there’s a former Ministry of Defence site which has been transformed into a fancy piazza, replete with luxury shops. At the far end, the old barracks which was once the Army Military Asylum is now the Saatchi Gallery, filled with the most edgy kind of modern art.

I was slightly late for dinner, and it felt like the coldest night of the year: luckily I managed to get past the seemingly impenetrable iron gates to the welcoming beacon of the museum’s restaurant, Gallery Mess, which had invited us to try out the dinner menu.

Appropriately enough, on this most Arctic of nights, the current exhibition is a collection of mid-century Moscow art entitled “Breaking the Ice”. I’ll have to go back during opening hours to check that out.

Gallery Mess, its name evoking the officers’ mess which fed the military elite for almost two hundred years, is a grade II listed building which must be an architect’s dream of a place; all exposed brick, a wall of windows, and pieces of art in between the tables. In a room which once echoed to the tramping of squaddies’ boots, there’s a giant shoe on the back wall. Thankfully, there are no formaldehyde cows.

The food comes courtesy of the upmarket catering firm Rhubarb, which now runs a handful of London restaurants: there‘s an all-day menu with cakes at tea time, and some options for children. I have to confess I hadn‘t realised it stayed open in the evenings, but you can get dinner here every night apart from Sunday.

My friend, R, had already staked out a prime table right next to a powerful heater, and had started on the wine, getting the chance to taste three before settling on an organic chianti which she declared “smooth, well-rounded and delicious". We eyed up the menu, a short but fairly classic selection with prices on the Chelsea side of average: there were so many tempting dishes, although I was immediately won over by the butternut squash tortellini, one of my favourites.

R hovered between sea bass and rib eye steak, briefly swayed by the idea of a couple of starters. The scallops sounded excellent, as did a marinated salmon with beetroot and horseradish cream.

But with the sub-zero winds whistling around us, this was a time for something hearty and comforting. The waiter helpfully recommended the fish, and we were decided.

I’ve never been a huge fan of sea bass, but if it was always cooked like this I’d definitely order it again. It was perfectly cooked, with the crispiest possible skin, the flesh firm and satisfying beneath. There was some Swiss chard, and a pile of well seasoned crushed potatoes that had been fried to a crisp finish, almost like a hash. A generous circle of shrimp in a butter sauce surrounded the plate. It was delicious.

But the triumph of the night was my bowl of large, plump tortellini. The pasta was just thin enough without losing that necessary bite: the filling was dense, smooth, rich, with a warming note of nutmeg: a tangle of watercress on top came scattered with shaves of parmesan and some unusually fresh pieces of walnut. Lurking underneath was a puddle of squash puree, sweet and unctuous. I suspect there was some butter involved. I grudgingly let R try a tiny corner before I polished off the rest.

Onto pudding then, for we were being nothing if not thorough. The wintry weather seemed to rule out the ice cream or knickerbocker glory - so we ordered the other two options, a chocolate tart and a rhubarb steamed pudding.

The tart was filled with a very rich, very dark ganache: a little bitter for my taste - it definitely needed the accompanying salted caramel ice-cream to balance it out, but I might have preferred a less intense chocolate filling. Not that I wasted much time clearing the plate, of course.

R’s choice, the deconstructed rhubarb pudding, looked deceptively small, but the dense, syrup drenched sponge was just the sort of thing you need on a freezing night: presented on a long platter with a large scoop of clotted cream ice-cream and a few pieces of poached rhubarb alongside. R said it reminded her of the steamed puddings her mother used to make when they were children, and in a good way.

We were too full for tea or coffee, and even managed to turn off the heater for a nano-second, trying hard to delay the unwelcome idea of leaving the warm embrace of the restaurant and venturing back outside, where it had started to snow.

We were the last to leave, but no-one tried to rush us out: it was all very relaxed. I enjoyed the whole experience; had the chocolate tart been slightly sweeter it would have scored ten out of ten. To echo that old slogan, Gallery Mess is an ace café, with a museum attached.

Gallery Mess on Urbanspoon

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