Dinner At THOMPSON@Darcy's, St Albans
PUBLISHED: 12:13 21 October 2014 | UPDATED: 12:13 21 October 2014
Food and drink editor Richard Cawthorne renews acquaintance with one of St Albans' best-known and popular restaurants
When Phil Thompson took over the former Darcy’s in St Albans last November, he admitted he was ‘terrified’ at the prospect of becoming a restaurateur for the first time. As executive chef at Auberge du Lac, he had piloted what many consider Hertfordshire’s top dining experience through a period of notable success. But like many before him, he dreamed of having his own place. When Darcy’s became available with the departure of Ruth Hurren for her native Australia, the dream was in reach.
If Thompson is still terrified, it doesn’t show. Coming up for his first anniversary, he and his team are demonstrating a sure touch at what is now called THOMPSON@Darcy’s and word is spreading rapidly. The chef believes fine dining does not have to be formal and this approach, plus some inspired tricks with the imaginative menu, regularly serves up a full house.
On the slightly down side, Thompson claims fine dining doesn’t have to be expensive either, though his ambitions in that direction have not yet caught up with reality. A meal from the a la carte menu can easily run to £50-plus a head without wine. I know many St Albanites and those from further afield who wouldn’t turn a hair, but I know many more who would.
Having said that, it would be difficult to fault T@D’s performance on my visit. It was one of those rare occasions when almost everything a restaurant says about itself comes true, even if I was obliged to part with a wodge of cash in return. My fellow critic and I were treated as guests rather than irritants, the surroundings were bright and elegant, service crisp without being condescending and the food a pleasure without being overbearing. And in case that sounds too fulsome, I repeat the Herts Life mantra - they didn’t know who we were and the restaurant was not aware it was being reviewed.
Starters were an indication of what was to come, which is of course part of the idea. Pay attention to the accompaniments and you’ll see what I mean by imaginative. The 48-hour soy-braised Jacobs Ladder (£10.50) came with pickled summer vegetable salad and Asian pear. We expected the meat to be on the bone but it was presented instead off the bone as two healthy squares of beef about whose tenderness and flavour my companion raves still. Cornish white crab (£12) with miso caramel, sake compressed cucumber and wild rice was equally novel and satisfying and, like all our food, presented on the plate almost as a work of art.
Our main courses, lamb and monkfish, might sound ordinary but became something else by the way they were done. The leg of Little Braxted lamb (£21) was marinaded in yogurt and came with confit shoulder cannelloni, charred leek, creamed nettles and girolles, all as good as they sound. Not to be outdone, the butter-roast baby monkfish (£18.50) was voted near-perfect, with accompaniments of cumin roast heritage carrots, burnt orange and liquorice. An indulgent side dish of duck-fat roast potatoes (£3.50) completed the picture. Portions, in what used to be called nouvelle cuisine style, were not large but adequate. Suitably replete, we shared a dessert of English cherries (£9.50) with white chocolate mousse and almond croquant, which was more about the sweetmeats than the fruit, but we were by then in forgiving mood. Two glasses of wine, an excellent but pricey American riesling at £11 and a slightly more reasonable and robust Argentinian malbec at £7.50, set the seal on the whole experience.
There are various ways to sample the T@D style, including well-priced set menus for lunch (£16.50 for two courses, £21 for three) and dinner (£18.50 and £23) and a six-course tasting menu – with a vegetarian option – at £49 per person with an optional wine-tasting list to accompany each dish. There is a ‘ladies that lunch’ menu on Mondays-to-Wednesdays, while Sunday nights are given over to steak and lobster enthusiasts. Cooking fans can also book a ‘kitchen experience’ class at £185 per person to discover how it’s all done.
BOOK A TABLE
2 Hatfield Road
St Albans AL1 3RP
The cost of this meal for two was £95.25 including two glasses of wine. Service was extra.
This is an independent review featuring a restaurant selected and experienced by our food and drink editor. The restaurant was not told it was being reviewed.