It’s a truth universally acknowledged that the heart of Covent Garden is generally best avoided. That venerable institution Rules can be fun for a nostalgic trip down memory lane, and is wonderful in game season, but it struggles with hectic services at weekends and the pre/post theatre rush. Then there is the high concentration of soulless chains and tourist traps. But there are decent places too, and following on from Frenchie and Adam Handling’s Frog, there’s a fairly new kid on the block that is impressing already.
Cora Pearl, diagonally opposite Frenchie, is the Frasier to Kitty Fisher’s Cheers – a follow-up to the joyous Mayfair temple of grilled meat which is continuing under George Barson’s direction now that Tomos Parry has left for Brat. Cora Pearl doesn’t seem to be burdened by this hard act to follow, nor does it seem to have any of the faux hysteria associated with its older sibling. It was remarkably straightforward to get a table one Friday. Hopefully that will remain the case as we certainly want to keep going back.
There’s nothing outré. No witchcraft, no vials of Andy Murray’s tears, just solid cookery
This former townhouse seems strangely miles away from the hustle and bustle of Covent Garden’s piazza or The Strand. The ground floor has just the right ambience: tables are spaced adequately apart, the hard chairs are covered in cushions which provide not only comfort for one’s posterior but absorb sound too (the sound of restaurant chatter, for the avoidance of doubt). The design, whilst channelling European cafés of yore and referencing the restaurant’s namesake herself, is mercifully free of cliché – indeed, the off-magenta paint against emerald green tiles is visually appealing, if not calming. Attention is also paid to the glassware and cutlery. And above all, attention is paid to the customers. On arrival, the manager greeted us like she actually wanted us to be there and throughout the meal all staff delivered truly hospitable service. In short, it speaks high-end French bistro without the attitude.
As we tore off pieces of sourdough bread to scoop up divine yeasted butter, we knocked back a couple of sharpeners: the French Blonde for me (£11), and the curiously addictive (yet non-alcoholic) Strawberry and Dill Sour (£6) for m’colleague. One could steal a whole afternoon in its bar downstairs.
The cuisine can only really be described as unpretentious modern European comfort food, which is an inherently good thing. There’s nothing outré. No witchcraft, no vials of Andy Murray’s tears, just solid cookery.
Cow curd agnolotti with Jerusalem artichoke were perfectly made with truffle shavings that were not overpowering. Just a beautifully-balanced, non-bloating pasta starter. M’colleague’s veal tartare was sublime. The meal started off very well and was just about to get better.
Next up, my veal with a celeriac puree and bordelaise sauce was a masterclass in pure buttery gorgeousness. Sprinkled with sea salt, the meat had been cooked so sensitively that you barely needed to chew, whilst the bordelaise sauce was luxuriously steeped in bone marrow and shallots (accompanied, of course, by a very reasonable 2014 Chateau Micalet). Not wanting to follow veal with veal, m’colleague chose the iberico pork with turnips – an equally successful dish. And the sides are just as good as the main event. Between us we shared perfectly al dente broccoli and a bowl of their already-legendary chips.
It was during the sensual pleasure of the main course that The Nut Incident occurred. No, this isn’t a long-forgotten Noel Coward play but an unexpected event which tested the staff’s service. This requires a little backstory. M’colleague has a nut allergy and despite swerving clear of nutty items on the menu like an experienced off-piste skier avoids a tree, something triggered a minor allergic reaction. We later conjectured that it might have been the acorns eaten by the pigs. You will be glad to know that the reaction was not serious (indeed, m’colleague was relieved too) but what was noteworthy was how calmly the manager dealt with this (whilst simultaneously dealing with the Bookatable system going into meltdown). You want your front of house to be unflappable in a crisis but she went above and beyond to make sure everything was OK. This has to be recognised and praised.
Cora Pearl should be in your life
If there’s a minor criticism it might be that the desserts lack ambition: on our visit there were essentially creamy, liquidy things: milk and cookies, blood orange ice cream ‘dodger’, trifle or chocolates. We both went for the ice cream ‘dodger’ which was a touch too cold, but well-made and delicious nonetheless. Yes, this selection was less inspiring but at least comforting, like ending a meal with a hug.
And that’s what Cora Pearl does: it comforts, hugs, forgives, looks after you, and it should be in your life.
30 Henrietta Street
by J A Smith