Bistro Vadouvan, Putney Wharf

Bistro Vadouvan, Putney Wharf

Em Marshall-Luck enjoys “French and Spice”

Located on the south side of the River Thames, a stone’s throw from the serenely gliding swans, and the busier bustle of Putney Bridge, is Bistro Vadouvan. Ignore the trendy pubs and Carluccios, in the knowledge of a finer meal to be had in this restaurant, whose strapline “French and Spice” describes the cuisine aptly – elegant cuisine with the addition of oriental spices and ingredients (many of them Middle-Eastern).

Bistro Vadouvan is tucked away in a courtyard area with square cobbles and pretty trees and flowers: there is a long frontage with pale-peach-coloured sun awnings which also serve to provide shade (or, depending on the vagaries of the Great British Summer, shelter) for the outside seating at café-style tables and wicker chairs, while huge ale barrels serve as informal standing tables.  Inside, the immediate impression is yet again vaguely Mediterranean: terracotta quarry tiles, cunningly set at the diagonal, encourage an illusion of width to the proportionately long and narrow room; plain wooden, undressed tables with attractive black iron-work pedestals are complemented by wooden strap-back chairs with seat paddings in accented, but not garish, colours of blue, turquoise and green and by banquettes in the same vibrant turquoise; while the smart wooden match-boarded ceiling is framed by off-white-painted beams and echoed by the wooden wainscoting, with white walls above.

Lighting is provided by recessed halogen downlighters in the ceiling, as well as by pendant lights, some with conical glass shades and oversized bulbs, and, at the other end of the dining space, with more overtly-looking industrial-type metal shades. There are also unusual and appealing wall lights with cage-like black metal shades and a pulley-type wall-fitting, the flex of the light passing over the pulley: a quirky touch. Also quirky are the Heath-Robinson-type contraption on a ledge near the entrance door – a conglomeration of pipes, gauges, cogs, chains and glass flasks that immediately intrigues and fascinates, and the old sewing machine which forms part of the reception desk in the entrance.  The tables are laid with appropriate cutlery, white linen napkins and water and wine glasses, and also bear green-leafed house plants. Other imposing and striking features include large floor-standing plants, and, in the centre of one of the walls, a wrought-iron gate framed by huge oak beams. A low, grey-tiled bar – redolent of those found in France – at the far end from where we were seated allows those desiring just drinks to sit and enjoy these in an informal atmosphere.

The wine list is short but good with an excellent range of wine types and prices. The wines are mostly French but we also find Chilean, Argentinean, German, Spanish and Italian wines. I went for a glass of Fritz’s Riesling from Rheinhessen, Germany, an off-dry wine with strong aromatic nose and on the palate a glorious mixture of more mineral elements and ripe fruit – both the citrusy tones of lime along with sweeter flavours of peach. My husband’s orange juice was freshly-squeezed and beautifully fresh; while young Tristan went for a large glass of mango juice which seemed to disappear almost immediately and was presumably therefore very good!

There is a set lunch menu available at the extremely reasonable price of £15 for two courses and £18 for three – three options are available for each course, covering vegetarian, meat and fish dishes, all with some sort of spicy element to them. The a la carte starts with a “snacks to share” section, such as Cheese plate (with British cheese from Neal’s Yard); five starters, four mains and two items from the Clay Oven Barbeque, plus three sides.

Tristan chose two of those sides – the “home-made chips rosemary and garlic” and “Vadouvan spiced couscous raisins and pine nuts”. The latter was lovely – served warm and with a mild herby and spicy element; the sultanas and pine nuts adding bursts of honeyed sweetness and working superbly well. The chips had very salty and garlicky undertones and, as such, were dangerously more-ish.  They had crisp skins, but were light and soft inside; and served appetisingly hot in a white porcelain ramekin with a lining of greaseproof paper – a pleasingly artistic mode of presentation.

I went for the set menu and started with “Goats’ curd Labneh, pistachio & olive tapenade, Flat bread”. This was presented in a Spanish tapas bowl covered with za’atar, herb and spice infused tapenade, shreds of chillies, sliced spring onions, pumpkin seeds, with chopped tomatoes  and raw red onion adding welcome touches of sweetness, and fresh coriander leaves on top adding a spicy, citrusy zing. The curd itself was fresh-tasting and deliciously rich and creamy, slightly acidic in a mild and pleasant way. Flakes of salt lent a further dimension. The whole was a riot of colour, flavours and textures, all of which sang out loud, and yet in harmony, avoiding any dissonances. The flatbread – also mildly spiced – was the perfect vessel for the curd; in some places chewy and in others crunchy, with the rings where flames have caught adding a rather lovely burnt flavour. On the whole, this was a dish that deeply invigorated and awakened the taste buds.

For my main, I chose the beef ragout: even what appears to be a sensibly modest-sized portion is extremely filling – well-cooked rigatoni (neither too soft, nor too al dente) is combined with tender pieces of flavoursome beef, different types of mushroom and chorizo in an extremely flavoursome sauce with a paprika-y bite. Fresh basil scattered over the top lent its savoury, herby sweetness as well: an excellent dish, although possibly not the most appropriate for a baking hot summer’s day.

My husband chose the Poussin with Organic Sprout Salad from the Clay Oven Barbeque section – it was unbelievably tender, and spiced just enough to complement the flavour of the meat, but not to swamp it.  It came accompanied by a salad which included elements of fresh mint, pine nuts, red onion and spring onion that had plenty of presence, yet had a cleansing and refreshing effect – admirably judged and perfect  on such an afternoon.

For desserts Tristan was given a little bowl of chocolate ice-cream which also seemed to vanish pretty quickly; while I chose the “Luscious Chocolate and Bitter Orange”. This turned out to be a sort of chocolate tart, with a delicious crunchy base which included pistachio nuts, slivers of orange, and cardamom, which lent its characteristic aromatic flavour, while a rich chocolate mousse formed the interior. It was served with chocolate ice cream and a crunchy chocolatey biscuit “soil”. I also allowed myself to be tempted by a glass of the Garonnelles Sauternes from France, which was succulent, luxurious and sun-soaked: sweet and rich, with full apricot, honey and marmalade flavours.

Husband Rupert’s “Exotic Cheese cake with Passion Fruit Creameux” was deliciously refreshing and light, the cheesecake itself having a firm base and a suitably mousse-like cream, which was infused with the scent and taste of burstingly-fresh passion fruit.  It was served with a passionfruit coulis, small pieces of the same fruit, and miniature meringues, which complemented the biscuit base of the cheesecake itself to add a gravitas to the whole dessert.

We were utterly delighted that the music played alternated between traditional French or light jazz (of the Ella Fitzgerald variety) – this was a most welcome relief from the heavy beats heard in too many restaurants, and suitably appropriate for the refined but exciting dining offered. When we visited – for a late-ish lunch on a Friday in July – the restaurant was otherwise empty. This was lovely for us, having it all to ourselves, but I very much hope that this isn’t indicative of passers-by going to Carluccios instead (which, we noticed with sadness, was contrastingly full). Bistro Vadouvan offers inventive, fashionable and well-thought-out dishes that are beautifully cooked, and served with professionalism, friendliness and flair by smartly-dressed staff, in a beautiful location and appealing surroundings. It is the perfect place for a long lazy lunch or for an excellent evening meal. So keep going past those other establishments, and make a beeline for the superb Bistro Vadouvan instead.

Em Marshall-Luck is QR’s Food and Wine Critic

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