Menus are highly expressive pieces of paper. They convey the chef's personality; the relevant season; as well as the ambitions of restaurateurs and the collective aspirations of those who have backed them. And, of course, they also convey the promise of delicious food to come.
Two recently opened London restaurants, that in the new Henrietta Hotel in Covent Garden and the Taiwanese XU (pronounced Shu) in Soho, put their menus to highly effective use.
Henrietta's restaurant menu is attractive, straightforward and refreshingly clear. A red border surrounds a single piece of paper with several headlines: the increasingly common use of dishes 'to graze', followed by the more commonplace – starters, mains, sides and desserts.
We began with one of the three grilled flatbreads, this one topped with a mixture of crushed avocado, toasted angelica seeds and mint, and a dish of spring vegetables, wild garlic and Graceburn cheese, a feta-like cheese made in south London, over which a small pot of a light lamb broth was poured. The term spring vegetables does not do justice to the amount of time that must have gone into preparing this dish, shelling all the peas and tiny broad beans and halving the small radishes. But why, I wondered, spoil all this perfectly judged freshness with a rather heavy lamb broth? Wouldn't a light vegetable stock have been even better?
Our main courses proved equally easy on the eye. Jancis, unusually, transformed herself into a carnivore with a plate of an expertly sliced Simmental rib eye with fried agria potatoes and a pot of garlic mayonnaise that, as the tables are quite small, was easy for both of us to pick at. I chose ricotta dumplings served with more expertly picked, podded and prepared spring vegetables. My request for two spoons to share a soft cherry-blossom ice cream, a lovely light purple colour and topped with half of a much darker cherry, was equally appreciated.
That this restaurant has found its feet so quickly is due in no small part to the combination of those it has drawn together. It is the first London hotel of the renowned Experimental Group, owners of the Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels wine bar also in Covent Garden, who have persuaded chef Ollie Dabbous of the eponymous restaurant to oversee the menu and the dining room, which, with an open kitchen at the far end from the lobby bar shown above, gives off a definite feel of New York. The wine list, as well as our charming Italian female sommelier, will give any diner as much pleasure as the menu and from it we enjoyed a bottle of Château Rayas's La Pialade 2011 for £67 that brought my dinner bill for two to £153.56.
The menu at XU, which describes itself as 'a cinematic reinterpretation of an eating house in 1930s Taipei', is larger in format, just black ink on white, but as clear as Henrietta's with several blocks announcing its various sections as well as a cartoon, centrally placed, that introduces Xu as a free-spirited gentleman, a lover of poetry and tea.
XU marks the third opening for brother and sister, Shing-Tat and Wai-Ting Chung with Erchen Cha, who began serving the traditional savoury buns, or bao, of their Taiwanese homeland in a pop-up in 2013 and then teamed up with another set of Asan siblings, Jyotin, Karam and Sunaina Sethi of JKS restaurants when they moved into more formal restaurants. This is the group's most awkward opening.
It is awkward for several reasons. The building, a former Italian restaurant in Rupert Street, has its kitchens in the basement. The ground floor is constricted, with a steep staircase that leads up to the first floor and larger dining room, all of which are served by a plethora of electric dumb waiters.
Then there is the added complication that the owners are seeking to serve a far more diverse menu from a country whose food has had little exposure outside its homeland. I have only the faintest memory of what I ate during my only visit to the island in 1976, although I do recall the Taiwanese enthusiasm for food, something that has given rise to the phenomenal success of Din Tai Fung, the restaurant chain that has given the world xialongbao, Chinese dumplings filled with soup – everywhere, it seems, except the UK.
Xialongbao do not feature on XU's menu but there are more original dishes to try. We began with cuttlefish toast, three pieces of black cuttlefish and prawns served with whipped cod's roe; an appetising bowl of tomato and smoked eel with dried daikon; and a stunning dish called simply beef pancake. This comprised four thin pancakes, pickles, spring onion and a slice of bone marrow stuffed with delicious soft short rib of beef.
Our main course consisted of one dish that was served in such generous portions it was enough for both of us and one dish that could prove to become a personal favourite. Shou Pa chicken was the former, a large bowl of dark and white meat, alongside bowls of spring onion and diced chicken skin. The other was far more potent – XU's Mapo Tofu, a combination of fried and silky tofu viciously enhanced with Yunnan green peppercorns, an assault on my taste buds happily subdued by the bowl of steamed rice.
These are two very different menus that reveal two distinctive and exciting styles of cooking.
Henrietta 14-15 Henrietta Street, London WC2E 8QH; tel +44 (0)20 3794 5314
XU 30 Rupert Street, London W1D 6DL; tel +44 (0)20 3319 8147
For more of Nick's thoughts on menus, see On the Menu - Nick's new book.