WLC’s resident sybarite, Lucy Shaw, heads to Gizzi Erskine’s Parisian pop-up at the St Martins Lane hotel for a pretty porcini parfait, silky Beaujolais and heavenly pomme purée.
The concept: The Nitery is a French flight of fancy from British food writer and TV chef, Gizzi Erskine, who, with her Breton tops and brunette beehive, is the culinary world’s Audrey Hepburn.
The three-month residency takes inspiration from the ‘niteries’ that sprung up around Paris in the 20thcentury, attracting the bohemians and hedonists of the day, who were free to indulge in debauched deeds in candlelit corners.
This isn’t Erskine’s first foray into restaurants. Last January she teamed up with nutritionist Rosemary Ferguson to launch a plant-based junk food pop-up called Filth in Shoredith, which served black bean and soy patties with “secret” umami paste, and sweet potato fries with seaweed miso “dust” to legions of east London hipsters in a bid to prove that vegan food needn’t always be virtuous.
The décor: The Nitery resides inside the St Martins Lane hotel, which, when it opened in Covent Garden in 1999 with whimsical Philippe Stark interiors, claimed to be the capital’s first boutique hotel. The lobby has since been redesigned but retains Stark’s sense of the absurd, pairing baroque mirrors and chaise longues with giant chess pieces and stools of that look like gold teeth.
Inside The Nitery, a number of the features from the restaurant’s previous incarnation, Asia de Cuba, remain, from the circular bookcases and French furniture, to the brown leather banquettes.
To give it its own identity, the walls have been painted midnight blue and adorned with provocative paintings inspired by the likes of Picasso, Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec and Chagall, including works by quirky comedian Noel Fielding. The pop punk soundtrack takes in everything from Duran Duran to The Sex Pistols.
Dining in the cosy, candlelit space earlier this week, the impact of the coronavirus was already being felt. At its busiest the room was half full, but it illustrated how tough the next few months are going to be on the hospitality sector.
The food: Clean eaters should give The Nitery a miss – Erskine’s concept champions comforting French classics loaded with salt and butter. The menu is short, sweet, and full of temptations. Much to my dismay, the truffle croque monsieur was off the menu on our visit, so I consoled myself with a pair of devilled eggs instead.
Rich and creamy with a kick of heat from the French mustard running through them, the eggs were elevated by salty flecks of chicken skin.
Also on point was a duo of dainty hand-dived scallops drizzled in vivid green garlic butter. Silky as a nightgown and cooked to perfection, the delicate flavour of the scallops was enhanced rather than overpowered by the gloriously Gallic sauce.
Signature dishes: No trip to a French brasserie would be complete without trying the steak tartare, and The Nitery’s caper-flecked offering didn’t disappoint. Served on a sweet brioche bun, the moist meat was topped with a Veuve Clicquot yellow egg yolk that added an extravagant silkiness, while beef dripping and Marmite turbocharged its savoury flavour.
The dish of the night was a humble sounding porcini parfait, a creation the kitchen is particularly proud of, and with good reason. A plate of many parts, in the centre was a buttery choux pastry globe filled with an umami rich porcini mushroom parfait topped with Madeira jelly.
Fanning the globe were razor-thin slivers of raw porcini. For mushroom fans it’s a delight of a dish that proves how accomplished vegetable offerings can be if the ingredients are shown the respect they deserve.
Another standout moment of the meal was the arrival of silver dish brimming with pomme purée served as a sideshow to my half lobster with green garlic butter. While the lobster meat was superbly soft and sweet, the mash stole the show.
Creamy, cloud-like, impossibly smooth and loaded with butter, it was among the best pomme purée I’ve ever had and was on a par with the maestro Joël Robuchon’s version, which famously uses a 1:2 butter to potato ratio.
The drinks: It’s worth beginning the evening with a French accented cocktail. I wasn’t brave enough to try the Man Ray, which blends Woodford Reserve with crème de cacaco, Lagavulin and coffee-infused Bombay Sapphire, plumping instead for the Breton Fizz, a pleasingly sharp marriage of rhubarb purée and Pet Nat.
On the wine front, a 2018 Provence Vermentino from Château Fontainebleau provided welcome refreshment with its notes of pear and citrus, while a 2017 Anthony Thévenet Morgon Cuvée Vielles Vignes was juicy, spicy, stalky and cherry-scented, and paired perfectly with the tartare.
What could be done better: The only disappointment of the meal was the tarte tatin, which seemed like it was made with ancient apples. The fruit was so sweet, intense and lacking in crunch, it tasted more like a date or prune tart. Our La Poire apéritif cocktail was also overly sweet and slightly soapy in character.
Last word: If you suspend your disbelief and leave your cynicism at the door, The Nitery is a wonderfully whimsical space in which to while away an evening. It’s worth going for the pomme purée alone, but there is much to delight at this Parisian pop-up, which runs until 30 April.
The Nitery, St Martins Lane Hotel, 45 St Martin’s Lane, London WC2N 4HX; Tel: +44 (0)20 7300 5500