The Ninth22 Charlotte Street, London W1T 2NB
Contact 020 3019 0880; theninthlondon.com
Price Dinner for two, around £120
I’ve walked past The Ninth several times since it opened before Christmas. The first thing I thought was: that looks nice – clear, unfussy design; shortish, well-defined menu (contemporary European with a Mediterranean accent and a few East Asian touches); not too expensive for this part of town – must check it out some time. The second was: why is it called The Ninth?
The question has gnawed at me ever since. Is it a paean to the 9th arrondissement of Paris, home to so many fine restaurants? Some kind of arcane allusion to US congressional politics? To the mysterious disappearance of the Ninth Legion in the mists of second-century Caledonia? To the clanging power chord deployed by Neil Young on his epic live LP Weld? To the great Armenian artist Ivan Aivazovsky’s mystical 1850 seascape The Ninth Wave? To the nine degrees of Gnostic initiation? Will a discretionary service charge of 11.1 per cent recurring be applied to parties of nine or more? What’s going on?
I finally made it through the door a couple of weeks ago. It’s not quite as well put together inside as it promises to be from the outside: they have gone for a sort of luxe industrielle look – lovingly distressed gilded plaster, shiny-bright copper pipework, bare brick – which doesn’t quite convince in Charlotte Street, where it’s unlikely there were ever that many garment works or abattoirs, even gilded ones.
The staff are clad in the oligarch-friendly mufti you see pretty much everywhere at posher London places nowadays: Ninja Courtesan for the girls, Trainee Mafia Hitman for the boys. But the atmosphere is intimate and informal – so much so that a woman at the next table had eased her trainers off, adding a not unpleasant mustiness to the ambience. After a minute, disastrously, someone came and explained the concept to us. The dishes are – get this – made for sharing.
You can probably fill in the standard rant on the subject from your careworn copy of St Fay’s Epistle to the Restaurant Critics – upselling, lack of focus, how the blazes are you supposed to divide seven prawns between four people, etc. Suffice it to say that the plates at The Ninth aren’t especially small – had I not been among friends I would have been perfectly happy to choose one startery one and one main one and gobble them up myself, concept be damned.
As for the food, that clarity of thought I’d noted on the menu was carried through in most cases, if not all. A razor clam ceviche was a happy marriage of tastes and textures: mellow citrus damping down the slightly rank shellfish but letting its sweetness and sea-tang come through. Stracciatella, a young curd cheese from Puglia, was fresh and creamy, if a little overwhelmed by beetroot.
Osso bucco tortellini were pronounced underdone by my friend but I liked the way their chewiness worked against the melting texture of the meat (larded with bone marrow, if that’s not a mixed metaphor) they contained. A pretty dish of roast rabbit with morels and sweetbreads was impressively harmonious, though it turns out that a rabbit’s sweetbreads are a rather pitiful sight. A tarte Tatin was bravely simple and perfectly bittersweet.
The standout dish – the Eagle of the Ninth, as it were – was crispy red mullet with pickled carrot and shallot. The crispiness came from both without – a light and puffy tempura-style batter – and within, the skin of the fish having been precooked somehow to a leathery stiffness. Yet the flesh was succulent and not at all overdone. The pickle was earthy as well as sharp, a little like that used to dress sardines in the Venetian pesce in saor; the discs of carrot winsomely cut to resemble little marigolds. The whole dish embodied that mysterious attribute of the best Mediterranean food whereby good, simple things are made great through a bit of thought rather than huge elaborations of technique.
Other dishes failed to hit the mark, quite, though there was talent on show everywhere. Ox cheeks had – we guessed – been slowly sous-vided into submission. They retained a full and complex flavour but, though tender, felt wan and flubbery in the mouth; also they hadn’t been given any chance to form a meaningful dialogue with the accompanying sauce, a light and – we felt – over-salted clear broth with green peppercorns. Chunks of roast celeriac were a little too unyielding, though to serve them thus rather than in a purée or a gratin or whatever showed a dash of originality. On the whole, though, we felt that the positives well outweighed the negatives.
The Ninth isn’t rampagingly trendy, but in some of its cooking – a fondness for pickles and cultures, for smoking and charring – it’s quietly au courant. Its Provençal and Italian influences are handled in an entirely contemporary way, but they’re there if you choose to see them.
“So,” I asked as they brought the bill, trying to purge any note of anticipation from my voice, “why’s it called The Ninth?” “Oh,” said our Ninja Courtesan, “it’s the ninth place the chef has worked. But it’s the first one where he’s in charge,” she added brightly.
We nodded, and fell back into our chairs in silence, a little downcast. (“If I’ve learnt something, why do I feel as if I’ve lost something?” wondered Nietzsche.) The chef’s name is Jun Tanaka, by the way, if you’re what I believe is now called a “chef nerd”