Some people have been moaning about small plate fatigue for a while now, but as a concept it has just as much validity as the ubiquitous Italian restaurants or burger joints that maintain their popularity generation by generation.
What matters isn’t the size of the portion, it’s the quality, and at the recently relaunched Bell’s Diner, which offers 3 dishes for £10 as part of their lunchtime special, you can’t complain about quantity or value for money. It’s a departure from the fine dining offered under Chris Wicks’ 15 year stint as chef patron, but not an unwelcome one.
We started with a portion of bright, crunchy home made pickles, bread and Abernethy butter whilst my dining partner and I scrutinised the menu. Trying to eliminate two of the eight options was challenging, but no so much so that she agreed to my suggestion of one of each and a second of something to round out the deal.
The butter was, as our waiter said it would be, astonishingly good, however we could have done without him telling us that he’d taken to eating it off of his fingers in hot weather. Friendly service is all well and good, but no diner really wants to know if that’s happening where their food is prepared.
After dismissing the idea of ordering nine plates, we narrowed our choices down and were delighted by the cool, creamy goats curd dressed with tomatoes, basil and chilli. An assembly job rather than a display of cooking skill, perhaps, but an excellent assembly job.
The salt cod fritters were also well received, pairing excellently with the aioli it came with, and the tartare sauce from the Lamb Ste Menehould, which was much lauded, but somewhat disappointing. Rich and fatty, under-seasoned and underwhelming considering how highly it had been praised by diners that came before us. Of all the dishes on the table, the last of the three pieces was the one thing neither of us were inclined to fight for.
The only other real disappointment was char-grilled morcilla and chorizo. The sausage tough and overcooked and the black pudding arriving with a shrunken collar of synthetic casing. Another assembly job, this one less successful and a little careless.
Anything could be forgiven, though, for the sublime spiced aubergine salad and mint yoghurt. Another excellent vegetarian offering was the fried marrow with herbs and breadcrumbs, which Bell’s had advertised as the dish of the day, though the aubergine won out with us.
Having been so disciplined in our main course choices, we felt justified in ordering desserts, which were universally superlative.
The lemon meringue tart was sharp, sweet, soft, crisp and disappeared within moments of hitting the table. A scoop of smooth vanilla ice cream was, perhaps, under dressed with a small amount of scarlet gooseberry sauce, but that might be the greed talking. The blackberry crumble ice-cream had the same texture, with a rich fruit flavour and a pleasant crunch from the crumble topping and brought the meal to a close on a high note.
Aside from the odd misfire Bell’s Diner does the small plate concept proud; and with their well stocked cellar and excellent knowledge thereof they offer wine pairings and a ‘Match of the Day’ for those who care to imbibe. We didn’t indulge on this occasion, so the meal came in at a surprisingly frugal £15 a head, though a return visit to try their larger plates, or sample those we missed out on this time is inevitable.