Look, I know they mean well. Honestly, though. You’ve been asked to dinner at a trendy new restaurant, you’re all excited, you can’t wait to try it… and then you look at the website. And what does the website promise you? ‘A menu based around health.’
That’s what they’re offering at Pomona's, the new Californian-themed place in Notting Hill. ‘A menu based around health.’ Now, I don’t know about you. Maybe you love the idea of ‘a menu based around health’. Personally, though, that’s the last thing I want. If anything, I want a menu based around bad health.
I want a menu based around sugar, bacon, cream, salt, cheese, batter, butter, pastry, jam, chocolate and fat: dreamy, delicious, saturated fat. I mean, that’s the whole point of eating out, isn’t it? You eat out to have fun.
If you want to be healthy, you don’t eat out. You stay at home and make a salad. You don’t go out to eat a salad. Going to a restaurant to eat a salad is like going to an orgy to play cribbage.
I suppose it’s all right in January. In January you’re feeling fat, listless, heavy with post-Christmas self-loathing. You aren’t in the mood for fun. You renounce fun. You actively want to deny yourself fun. So, if you do eat out, you order a dowdy brown plate of shapeless vegetation, and hate it, and relish hating it, because you know it’s no better than you deserve, you flabby, miserable, godforsaken degenerate.
A salad, in a restaurant, in January. It’s the culinary equivalent of a hair shirt.
The other 11 months of the year, though: forget it. You want to have a good time. You want to get your money’s worth. And you’re not going to have a good time or get your money’s worth by spending £18 on a bowl of chard.
On the whole, then, I didn’t expect to think much of Pomona’s. I wasn’t reassured by the design of it, either. Countless pot plants, a colour scheme of childlike brightness, wooden stools (rules of restaurants, number 492: health-food places always have uncomfortable chairs). In short, the place looked disgustingly wholesome, and tremendously pleased about it, too.
When I looked at the menu, though, I was pleasantly surprised. Normally the menus at restaurants of this type are masterpieces of pretension. Last year I reviewed Farmacy (which, as it happens, is just round the corner from Pomona’s; perhaps this is the beginning of some kind of organic enclave or buckwheat ghetto). Its menu teemed with ‘activated quinoa’, ‘biodynamic wine’ and ‘earth bowl’ salads. Pomona’s menu, though, seemed to be written in recognisable English. It also looked a lot less healthy than I’d feared.
Sure, it offered kale smoothies and a £15 vegan salad featuring glazed figs and coconut cheese. But many of the other dishes sounded unexpectedly appetising, and not at all pious or frumpy.
The softshell crab, for example, sported an inch-thick coat of crunchy batter, and was served with fra diavolo, a tinglingly spicy tomato sauce. Then there was the pastrami-cured salmon: wickedly smoky, with a kick of mustard pickle.
Next, a plate of tacos, soft parcels of zesty freshness enclosing morsels of chunky monkfish. And the tuna-poke bowl was lovely. Much though I deplore clean eating, with this dish it started to make a little sense to me. The sheer spring-like virtuousness of it. I could practically feel my arteries unclogging.
I wasn’t so keen on the mackerel rillettes – partly because they were so bland, but also because they were so cumbersome, and made me feel like Ed Miliband grappling with a whale baguette.
I was also disappointed with the ricotta and kale tortoloni: dull, rubbery pockets of cheesy air. The charred squid with black lentils, meanwhile, was pure Paltrow. You know what I mean. Black lentils. They’re just so… Paltrow.
The last dish, though, was terrific: hanger steak, gorgeously salty slivers of beef, garnished with horseradish gremolata for extra zing.
Pudding, on the other hand, was weird. I ordered the caramelised croissant and prune pie. Brown, dry and gruellingly thick, it looked – and, to be honest, tasted – like sliced Chewbacca. There was also the vegan piña colada cheesecake, which I probably shouldn’t have tried, since I’m supposed to be off booze. Still, it can’t have had much piña colada in it, because it didn’t make me remotely tipsy, and given that I haven’t touched a drop in seven months, the faintest sniff of alcohol should have sent me pirouetting across the table. So I’ve decided it doesn’t count.
It’s all right, Pomona’s. Then again, I’m not totally sure who it’s for. If you’re a disciple of clean eating, you may be alarmed to find that Pomona’s is naughtier than it lets on. And if you can’t bear all this wellness tosh, you’ll assume that Pomona’s is some humourless temple of All-Bran – and steer well clear.
Maybe it’s for people who want to tell themselves they’re on a diet, while in reality enjoying a full-on pig-out. Which, come to think of it, is probably quite a lot of us.