Denmark Street is all too familiar to me. The wonderful Helter Skelter bookshop (RIP), and gigs at the 12 Bar Club spring to mind, as does its role as a handy shortcut to Charing X Rd, but food - I'd never have thought it. The Giaconda Dining Room sits modestly among the guitarists' porn mag that is a street dedicated to rock 'n roll. Oddly placed, perhaps. Petite, most definitely.
Seating just 30, on closely packed bare-wood tables, its ambiance is more wine bar/café than foodie mecca. Mercifully free of music, voices ring off the cream walls and low ceiling with a happy cheer. Paul Merrony, trained by the Roux brothers, and veteran of Sydney's food scene, has brought a touch of finesse and culinary sunshine to an area I had thought resolutely unrefined.
The menu resists categorization. Southern Mediterranean influences strike a pose alongside distinctly Eastern European egg-and-potato heavyweights. Apparently Merrony's signature dish, I start with "almost boneless" Crisped Pigs Trotters. Delightfully soft gelatinous meat, perfectly seasoned and rich, sat on a bed of sliced boiled eggs and potatoes. Why this already substantial starter needs potatoes, I know not. The crisp leaves added a welcome astringent touch to the dish, however, and the trotter won the day. Minus the carbs, 5/5.
My companion had a delectable Pumpkin risotto with mascarpone. Our starters promised good things to come. Fish cakes with tartare sauce, and Sautéed chicken with wild mushrooms, roast garlic and new potatoes on order, we cleansed our palates with the only non-alcoholic drink on offer, citron pressé, and ordered an extremely good value glass of refreshing Picpoul de Pinet (at under £5). Tiny gripe: pressé really requires a sugar syrup with the lemon juice. It took a lot of stirring to persuade the granulated sugar to dissolve.
The sautéed chicken was Provence on a plate. Breast, leg, and thigh portions were amply dressed with an intensely savoury and fragrant reduction, and scattered with butter-rich, fried wild mushrooms, and countless roasted garlic cloves. Its composition was faultless. Needless to say, only my circulatory system was grateful for the garlic's pungent and powerful presence that night.
By the time we'd reached the lower echelons of the menu, the room was packed. The two efficient waitresses were miracle workers, eyes on every table and happy to accommodate all manner of requests. I'm amazed my questions about the pudding - Iced nougat with raspberries - didn't prompt sighs of irritation. The nougat, though a skillful fusing of fruitiness and creaminess, had an overwhelming bitter edge that I just couldn't put my finger on. Its mouthfeel was reminiscent of ground almond kernels rather than citrus fruit, though they insisted it was grapefruit rind. Who am I to argue! My companion's Tiramisu took soft, pillowy pudding decadence to a new level. Tiramisu is so often bastardized by leaving out the egg, or adding Baileys. Needless to say, Merrony can be relied upon to do nothing of the sort.
As we left I caught a glimpse of the impossibly tiny galley kitchen, and there he was in his Wonderland, happily frantic. After a thumbs-up to Paul, we wandered to Freud's (cocktail bar at the Giaconda-end of Neal Street) for a digestif.
£30 for three courses cooked by the man himself, whose food mercifully doesn't play tricks, but rather speaks of honesty, enthusiasm for ingredients at their best, and an intelligent palate, is a wonderful experience. Needless to say, I will return.