Paradise Garage Is A Misleading Title
Restaurant nerds like to come early. Can it, those of you sniggering in the cheap seats – you know what I mean. Get in there early doors and the cultural capital you can scatter over any conversation with fellow tragics is a powerful drug; the slow nod and knowing smile you can pull off when someone asks if you’ve visited somewhere open for mere days never comes without a smug thrill.
If you’re someone who writes about restaurants, though, there’s another even more powerful reason: it gives you the ability to define a narrative, carve out some all-important real estate on the pretty cluttered island on which all writers on restaurants reside. If you find Luca an impressively grown-up spot but a little muted in the flavour department, that’s a potentially interesting angle – unless someone else much more prominent writes the same sort of thing around the same time. So go there early, shoot your shot, move on. You ain’t got time to waste – Sam and Eddie Hart will have found another non-white cuisine to appropriate before you know it.
As I’ve written before, I’m usually pretty good at jumping the gun and getting in and out before the crowds. Not with 108 Garage, though. When the usually fairly disinterested Giles Coren went off on a Trumpian Twitter rant (“Repeat: 108 Garage. No online presence, no reviews, no PR. The place EVERYONE will be talking about soon. You heard it here first by a mile!”) in January, I scrambled to lock down my reservation. But due to various three-line whips (ugh, 10 year anniversary trip to Seville – this is your timing?) I found my dance card full for whole fortnights – at weekends at least, and there was no way I was venturing to the pastel-hued gulag of W10 on a weeknight.
I got there in the end, burdened by a thick layer of preconceptions courtesy of not one, not two, but three major critics (or, to borrow a uniquely catty formulation from Giley, the queen of egotistical critical pissing-contest snark: two critics from national publications and one from a local rag). I came expecting a slightly soulless room, very uncomfortable seating, and some weird puddings; I also came expecting something pretty special, and utterly bonkers.
Correct on all counts, except that last one. It’s a wholly uninspiring space, so pathetically Notting Hill – the sort of penumbrous Mafioso room that looks cool and edgy to people who want to live in Hackney but whose parents bought them a flat off the Portobello Road so they’d be just round the corner for Sunday lunches. The seating truly is a HR Giger-ish nightmare, all backless stools and chairs with needlessly punishing flourishes in weird relation to floor height – dinner conversation is a semaphore of stress positions. Puddings are pretty weird on paper, featuring artichoke ice cream and a cheese cracker in rapid, disorientating succession. The food is pretty excellent – but it isn’t off-its-meds loco, the appalling needlessly neophage flavour-Bedlam of StreetXO.
It’s much better than that. Much as – I’m sure – chefs like to come early too, to pioneer new combinations, Chris Denney’s menu reads like a confident synthesis of the best that has happened in Modern British cooking as the torch has passed through the hands of multiple high priests – Fergus, Heston, Simon, Isaac – and our native cuisine has evolved from brains to sea buckthorn and on to charred brassicas and doomsday prepper ferments.
So there is offal, but there is also yeast; there is pork, but it’s presa Iberica, served trendily pink; there is a Pacojet, but there’s also a Green Egg. Our places at the bar are, ergonomically speaking, probably the worst seats in the house, but the view into the open kitchen is proper ringside spectator stuff: a young, hungry-looking brigade whip stuff together with impressive speed and dexterity.
Perhaps it’s the youth, or the speed, or some youths on some actual speed, but not everything is bang on the money. That sweetbread is spunkishly soft in the middle, probably a little underdone; that pork – seared on the outside – savours a little too much of English summer barbecue sausage and has probably been charred a little too aggressively. I don’t particularly care: it’s nice to go somewhere that isn’t placidly sous-vide faultless; to experience a genuine range of sensations rough around the edges: proper acute acidity from pickled red cabbage or a couple of different varieties of apple; real funk in the yeast with the sweetbread or the lardo with the pork or a borderline faecal chicken liver parfait that comes out at the start with some decent sourdough; an implausible harmony of ozone and forest-floor and Coco Pops that emerges from puffed wild rice with artichoke ice cream and a chocolate cremeux (an astonishingly delicious pudding for my money, well worth enduring the associated "benevolent educative challenge" (per the restaurant critic for my local paper); I didn't get to taste the combo redolent of "liquorice and farmyard piss" that Giles enjoyed so much). The kitchen can also do delicacy, and simplicity; they know not to get too cute with the flawless perfume of some frozen gariguettes, matching them Roganically with chervil and buttermilk – a second absolute stunner in as many pieces of oh-so-2017 stoneware.
108 Garage isn’t perfect – and in some ways that’s a good thing, and it some ways it isn’t. Give them a few months to iron out the kinks and – maybe? – do something of a remedial refit, though, and you’ll have that rarest of restaurants: a trophy that the late arrivals can show off to envious early adopters.
I’ll leave the line about missing out on all sorts of pleasurable stuff if you come too early to the cheap seats. With any luck you’ll find some on sale near Ladbroke Grove soon.