Secret restaurants will not be a new idea to you if you’re a London foodie – they may be a little more of a surprise if you’re not based in the capital. Over the last couple of years in particular, I’ve met more and more people running small, uncertified restaurants from their home dining rooms. You’ll hear them referred to as supper clubs, underground restaurants and secret restaurants; the usual procedure will involve you buying a ticket at one of these word-of-mouth places’ websites, and being emailed an address to turn up at the day before the meal. Many of the secret restaurant folk also write at the extremely extroverted end of the food bloggery spectrum. (You have a food blog either because you are a genteel introvert who wants an excuse to spend the day with a spatula and a keyboard, or because you love to share your sticky, greasy passion with as many people as you can. I like to feel I fall comfortably in the middle.)
The Secret Larder is one of these outfits operated by James Ramsden, a man with a smile and manner of the kindest, cockle-warmingest sort. (Check James’ website for details on the restaurant and bookings.) He wears an impeccable white apron, and has a heap of the kind of soft curls that are fun to ruffle on a ten-year-old. He has a brother, also radiating waves of loving-kindness – this family could start a cult – who was on waitering duty the night I visited; a sister also helps on other evenings and provided much of the artwork in the room we ate in.
Clearly, in order to operate a secret restaurant, you need an eye-bleedingly spectacular space to run it from. An Edwardian découpage screen separates the kitchen from a vaulted living/dining area full of soft chairs covered with throws and cushions, and limed, pickled and painted wooden furniture. Fairy lights twist around the cast iron rods holding the high ceiling in place, and there are books of the sort you’ll want to steal all over the room. A good conversation starter, actually; I know I’m afflicted with a horrible urge that makes me stock the bookcases downstairs, where people might actually see them, with some of the more interesting crags and peaks of the Upton book mountain, and I’d love to know if that copy of Take a Buttock of Beefe, the two (two!) copies of the Silver Spoon cookbook and the books on Joseph Beuys had been positioned with the same venal impulse.
Although the Secret Larder can cater for dozens of covers, the night I visited was much more intimate; a table was laid for eight. The room was velvety with candles, those fairylights and the lovely luminosity that only a bloodstream full of fermented grape juice can give a lighting scheme. The books, the pictures, the furniture, the lights – just the sort of environment calculated to get people talking even before we all got settled on the food and drink.
I was, along with some other food bloggers, here as a guest of Prosecco Riccardo, who were providing the evening’s wines. The brand is new in the UK, and the owners of the vineyard, held up by weather over Verona, arrived an hour or so later than the rest of us, at first appearing slightly nervous about the restaurant being – you know – in somebody’s flat. This secret restaurant thing has not yet percolated as far as the sunlit hills of Conegliano-Valdobbiadene. Happily, any lasting resentment against the British left over from their awful flight with BA was instantly soothed by the application of a fillet of fresh, oily mackerel on an earthy base of artichoke purée and a glass of their own fizz. I was reminded that my Italian needs some work. I trained years ago as a classical singer, and this meal really brought home to me that a vocabulary consisting of vaguely operatic stuff like: “Lo! Gentle shepherd! A thieving magpie! What is life without thee, Euridice?” and phrasebook stuff like: “I would like two tickets for the exhibition and a hot chocolate, please; oh, and some stamps for the United Kingdom,” does not serve you well at a dinner with wine producers. As always, though, a big smile and some elegant miming will mitigate most of the damage.
Prosecco hasn’t always been a sparkling wine; until World War 2, the Glera grapes went to make a still wine, and it was only after some bored experimentation with a demijohn in the 1940s that the standard Prosecco became a fizzy one. The still wine is still produced, but only makes up about 5% of production from the region (which now has Denominazione di Origine Controllata status), and seldom makes it out of Italy. We tried a couple of bottles of this fizz-free Tranquillo, and it knocked my socks off. At 11% ABV with the odd bubble from natural fermentation, it will remind you of a Portuguese Vinho Verde. All tart apples and flowers, it’s a lovely wine against the sort of dense earthy flavours we were tasting in the mackerel with its artichoke puree and shallot marmalade.
It’s a challenge to construct a whole menu around Prosecco, but James worked it in seamlessly. The Brut we started with – easy-drinking, not too dry, with a very jolly bubble – worked as an aperitif and performed really well against ramarino in culo, which translates loosely as “rosemary up the bum”. Little balls of steak tartare are seared on the bottom, with a spear of rosemary pushed into the still-raw top giving the whole mouthful a resinous lift. Gorgeous. The (perfectly seasonal, as was most of the meal) strawberry salad worked pepper flavours from the balsamic dressing and fresh leaves of rocket against the Brut in a way that had me making a note to try matching the wine to peppery dishes myself; I’ve spent far too long treating Proseccos as wines to drink without food, or as something to make Bellinis with.
A switch to the Tranquillo for the fish and the back to the Brut again for pork belly, served with chicory and a punchy salsa verde. My notebook has a drop of olive oil on it from this point in the evening, and a scrawl which I can’t interpret. I think I am trying to make the point, sozzled, that this is a very nicely prepared slab of pig, the fat rendered out over hours of slow cooking, the meat tender and herby and the flavours balanced, especially with that sharp salsa verde, the bitter chicory and the mouth-filling richness of the pork itself. What I have actually written appears to be “Not too swiney! Fat – whee!” Perhaps I should consider a dictaphone for these things in the future.
James produced something so good for dessert that I considered kidnap. Peaches caramelised in Marsala pushed into the bottom of glasses were topped off with a boozy zabaglione. And he’d made cantucci. And terrific coffee. A glass of Riccardo’s grand cru, the Cartizze Valdobbiadene, was pushed into my hand. I have to admit to a certain haziness to proceedings at this point, but I have scribbled “refined, sweeter, minerals, small bubble” just underneath the thing about the pork, and seem to remember enthusing about what a superb digestif it made.
I will (and did, thanks to pints of Prosecco – I shouldn’t have, it was rude and I apologise) admit that something about being served in someone’s home, especially when they are a mere ten feet away and so much of your conversation is about the food, is a little uncomfortable. I ached for James and Will to take a seat and join us in putting the culinary world to rights rather than slaving over a hot pig. This, though, is just a result of the fact that they made the whole evening’s experience feel like going to a friend’s house for a dinner party. I can’t recommend a visit highly enough, especially if you’re going to be sharing a table with friends – something about this set-up makes conversation flow, and the food is joyous.
You can learn more about Riccardo Prosecco’s range at their website. Their UK importers are Gastronomica. Many thanks to Riccardo and the Fornasier family for the invitation, to the inestimable Douglas for a spot of light sommelier-ing, and to James and Will for the use of their flat and their skill. And thanks also to Nick, Torsten and Ian for a great evening’s natter.