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Visitors to the area need sustenance, just as Chaucer's pilgrims did as they set off for Canterbury from the Tabard Inn. Nowadays there are still the old pubs but also new restaurants springing up like The Loft which distances itself from its host, the Accor Mercure Hotel. Don't worry, the Loft is certainly not an hotel restaurant in the usual sense. It enjoys certain advantages, however, in that the Accor group which operates a brilliant scheme celled Grands Vins Mercure. This enables diners to enjoy some excellent wines at very reasonable prices. The current list includes a 1er Cru Chablis Fourchaume 1998 for £18.00, and a Grand Cru Alsace Riesling for £15.50. From the many well known reds, you could down a spicy Rhone from St Joseph for £12.50, or a 1er Cru Beaune from Jadot for £20.50, or there's the second wine of Pontet-Canet from the lovely 1996 vintage at the bargain price of £18.00.
The chef is Luke Dale-Roberts, who came from Bali Sugar and before that Elena's Etoile. He has travelled widely in South America and the Far East, and he did a stint at Sydney's Greenwood Hotel. Yes, you'd be right in thinking that he's well into Pacific Rim fusion cuisine, but I was impressed by the attention to detail and evidence of sound culinary practice and skilful preparation. This turned out to be still more impressive when I learned that Luke was off for the day and that the kitchen was in the capable hands of his sous, Ben Philo, clearly another high flier and someone to watch out for. The restaurant is managed by David Fraser, a Kiwi who understands the importance of leading his staff from the front.
The alc menu has a choice of seven starters, ranging from a butternut and herb broth with baby spinach, goat's cheese and pine nut dim sum - yes all that for £4.50 - to seared foie gras with crispy Jerusalem artichokes, dandelion, date and chicory salad (£9.50). Very popular was the salad of chorizo, fig, sweet potato and poached egg with goat's cheese dressing (£6.50). I like to try a dish that involves skilled cooking as well as artful assembly, so I went for the confit terrine of rabbit. More correctly it was a terrine of confit rabbit, beautifully slowly cooked so that the meat was meltingly tender. The slice was attractively marbled and shot through with pieces of pickled Cox's orange pippin (a traditional English apple) which added texture, visual effect and a tangy flavour. A very good start!
Amongst the main dishes, I noticed that braised duck leg comes with soy mirin broth and a sushi roll (£12.50), poached smoked haddock with butternut risotto and a quail egg (also poached I hope - £12.50) and roasted rabbit leg (my God, did they reserve the saddle for my terrine?), roasted rabbit leg with prune and chorizo stuffing, pan fried polenta, cumin dressed green beans and a bitter chocolate jus (£13.50). I rather like these menus that practically give you the recipe, it's such fun trying out these wild combinations at home.
I settled for something more British - slow cooked pork belly with apple and sage stuffing, quince glaze and mustard roasted new potatoes - all very traditional and exceptionally well executed. Melt in the mouth meat, vivid accompanying flavours - well worth £13.00. There are side orders of veg for an additional £2.50, but I didn't feel the need for anything more, certainly not at lunchtime. It was a struggle to choose a pudding, but I'm glad I did, because it would have been a pity to have missed the home made stem ginger ice cream. Their pastry chef Doreth takes a ball of it, wraps it in coconut rice and deep fries it, then serves the crunchy caramelised bombe surprise suspended on a raft of rhubarb swimming in its Champagne poaching juices. I hope I'm making your mouth water.
Oh, in the midst of all this rapture I nearly forgot to mention the very good service - helpful and friendly with no fuss or attitude I'm glad to say - and they speak English.
The Loft Restaurant and Bar
17 Lavington Street Southwark London SE1 0NZ Tel: 020 7902 0800
Clifford Mould, February 2001
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