Duck Egg Tart with red wine sauce, turnip puree, lardons and sauteed duck heart

Last week, I had one of the best meals I have eaten in London for a long long time. I took my friend JR to a place called Medlar, and it got me thinking about what constitutes a great restaurant and why more places don’t tick that box for me.

I often experience much ridicule from my friends for my ever growing list of places I read or hear about that I want to try. And try I do…but mostly only to be disappointed. I am not sure whether my definition of a great restaurant differs to the critics or maybe the hype is more marketing speak than reality, but there are genuinely only a handful of places in London that do it for me.

I do recognise that over the years, my definition of ‘great’ has changed. I used to think that the traditional Michelin Star places were the ones to indulge in and there is no doubt that there is some superlative cooking going on in those kitchens. But the whole formality doesn’t make for a fun evening, and pomp turns into pompous far too easily.

It was a revelation for me to experience the new world of one Michelin star gastropubs, which were a significant addition to the Michelin process. These places tick many of my boxes, especially in the food stakes. The Harewood Arms in Fulham and The Royal Oak, Paley Street are two that spring to mind. Both showcase food from really talented chefs who are creative and fanatical about their dishes even though the end plate is something simple.

That’s what the chef at Medlar does so well too. It says on their website:

“At Medlar we aim to cook seasonal ingredients from the British Isles and Europe accurately and simply. The style is French based but takes inspiration from all over. A love of food drives Joe to the kitchen, and he strives to cook food that is first and foremost satisfying to eat, without over-elaboration or pretension.”

Well, let me tell you that he certainly does that. In fact, it is quite a puzzle how he does this and still delivers such amazing value, especially for lunch. £26 for a three course meal of this calibre is quite remarkable.

The wine list was equally skilled. I am not a big drinker but do appreciate a nice glass of wine with my meal and the wines by the glass (and carafe) were just wonderful. In fact, the whole wine list was to my rather uneducated eye very well formulated covering all regions and countries as well as prices with good style and taste.

JR’s crab ravioli starter with samphire, brown shrimps, fondue of leeks and bisque sauce

However good the food & wine, an overall restaurant experience needs much more. There is, of course, the environment itself. Clearly this should reflect the essence of the place you are aiming for and so this can vary. In older age (and yes, I realise how this is going to sound!) I find that I want less music and noise, and more of an elegant atmosphere. When I say elegant, I don’t mean stuffy. My Dad and I always talk about white tablecloths as this seems to ensure a more refined experience, but once again there is a fine line between refinement and stuffiness. Medlar is more on the formal side, but we still ate lunch in jeans and didn’t feel too embarrassed by our crumbs and dribbles on the white tablecloth.

What really defined this great experience for me were the people who ran the place. Our waitress was wonderful. She had absolutely the right balance of chatty camaraderie and respect for us as diners. There was something about the fact that she wasn’t in uniform that kept things casual. I also had great admiration for her skills in dealing with the misogynistic, drunk table of businessmen who were behaving quite inappropriately after their fourth bottle. JR and I marvelled at the fact this still goes on in this modern world of ours, but I can assure it did that day.

Food/wine + value for money + environment + service is the formula for this conundrum and the balance of these four elements is the key to a wonderful experience….plus the people you share your meal with, of course.