Casa Cruz, Ladbroke Grove
19th October 2016
Approx. £70 a head.
Juan Santa Cruz wants you to forget where you are. If you're eating at his restaurant, Casa Cruz, you're at the dodgy end of Ladbroke Grove, replete with smashed windows, community centres and council estates galore. I'm sure this isn't the only door that has an intimidating doorman outside it in the area, but despite that it looks a little lonesome amongst residential homes.
Stepping inside, decadent interiors with estate touches like fireplaces and deer-heads wash out your childhood memories of The Bill. It is compact - everything from the reception desk-come-poseur-table to the central bar has been precisely measured and miniatureized.
Simply put, it is one of the most beautiful restaurants in London. Polished, copper panels overlaid on amber-lit wood line the walls. Marble tabletops sport neat, wooden inlays. Wildly voluminous gladioli explode forth from the bar. Moss-green banquets are a slap in the face for the The Ivy, which spent a fortune on renovating, only to come out looking like nothing much has changed. This is what they should have done with their interiors.
Softly lit from recessed corners of the ceiling and floor and frosted gas-lit table-top lamps, Casa Cruz is transportative. It feels a little like some South American bajillionaire has warmly and firmly seated you in his private mountain cabin, for an evening of wine and whispers with his glossy and Botox-ed, power-boat owning friends.
I went through a period of covetousness at the start of the meal. Our white-jacketed waiter sported the most enviable seaferer gold buttons on his smock. He handed us the drinks menu, bound in Hermes-orange leather, a thing of beauty. I wanted to take it home and keep it in my bookshelf. But I didn't - I settled for ordering some berry vodka concoction and got stuck into the menu.
The food is evocative of Argentina, but not exclusively of that region. We found starters very simplistic, an artful assembly amounting to clean and modest flavours. I call this weeknight cooking. It is toned down, an opener for the heavy meats that would come later.
Even while appreciating that, the sea bass carpaccio deserved a better treatment. Perhaps Japanese and Peruvian cooking has spoiled me. Pickled shallots, lime and chilli all sounded like very promising treatments, but turned out mild and meandering.
South America has fantastic biodiversity, and they do the most wonderful things with vegetables. We ordered a raw artichoke salad, which was evocative of the unending buffets of vegetarian delights that precedes the warm mains in Latin regions. I will certainly make this at home – but would I order it again for £16? We must expect more from restaurants than just recipe ideas, particularly at dinner. This is not brunch at Hemsley and Hemsley in your workout gear.
They catered exceptionally well to our dietary needs, impressive considering we had one paleo and one pregnant diner. I imagine the gnocchi would have been outrageously good with gorgonzola, in fact it was very good without it. Hazelnut crostini arrived, gluten free for moi, and just as moreish as the real stuff.
I made the dizzying climb down two mirrored stairwells, overhearing as I stepped into the ladies that this restaurant’s bathrooms had the best views in London. They’re entirely mirrored.
Back at the table, we were served four sauces to accompany mains: chilli and almond, red grapeseed and mustard, good old horseradish and dijion. The grapeseed is delicious. Even though the perfect accompaniment to my secreto iberico pork was the gravy-tray of applesauce that came with it, I couldn’t help but turn to this. You cannot mistake the Argentine preparation of the pork – the consistency, flavours and salting all slightly muted for a modern audience, which I appreciated.
The lamb shoulder is a marvel – the kitchen had lovingly smoked rosemary and rock salt into the deep of it, then whispered over it with honey. I would come back to eat only this.
My dining companion NJ advised that while the steak was very good, it had nothing on that bastion of excellence, Cut at 34 Park Lane.
I tried another dining companion’s roast cod with pine nut crust. Unusually, this was more of a heap of whole pine nuts rather than a shell. It’s probably better that way. I paused to give thanks to the restaurant Gods for preserving a chef that favours a roast over a sous-vide. Most evenly cooked and gently flavourful. I was happy.
Sides were a total let down. My brother-in-law had hyped up the domino potatoes; I expected something like dauphinoise and was disappointed. Broccoli came sprouting out of the tomatoes, chilli and almonds, lacking in basic seasoning. Avocado at £6 caused me to huff and puff – they literally scooped and sliced, and threw on some lime, chilli and olive oil. If you miss it at breakfast, just have it tomorrow, don’t order it here. It’s just wasteful.
For dessert we were recommended strawberries, cream and meringue. Icelandic bark arrived with the consistency of foam board – that is the meringue. We liked it. Below lay some surprise panna cotta, also liked, halved strawberries and sorbet. It was good, precise, well executed, but nothing special.
The bill for four, including a bottle of wine, came to £80 per head. It’s nice to come here once, for date night or a special occasion. I anticipate having to come back here for dinner parties at Christmas and to entertain out-of-town guests – it’s that kind of blingy place. I’ll look forward to the lamb at these social events but bar that, I won’t return in a hurry.