The Providores & Tapa Room

The Providores & Tapa Room

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109 Marylebone High Street, London W1U 4RX
Visit the Website +44 (0) 20 7935 6175
Area: Marylebone
It’s odd what strikes a man as a dish of food is presented to him. I was sitting in the airy, white upstairs room of Providores in Marylebone High Street, pondering the centuries-old commerce between East and West, when I was suddenly reminded of T.E. Hulme. Hulme’s is not a name much bandied about over lunch these days. He was a minor poet and philosopher, who briefly became the academic PR man for English modernist verse, before his life was cut short by a shell in Flanders. The particular insight that my coconut laksa had summoned from the murk was Hulme’s distinction between the Romantic and the Classical. The Romantic, he said, saw man as an infinite reservoir of possibilities. The Classicist, on the other hand, saw him as a fixed, limited animal who needed t be organised if anything decent was to emerge. In food terms, this seemed to me to rather useful. On one side of the fence you have Team Blumenthal, the restless inventors, combining and re-combining ever-more outlandish ingredients in their search for buccal revelation; while on the other you have Team Roux, the hard-working, technique-driven traditionalists, whose highest goal is to reproduce the authentic, time-collapsing example of the great dish.
 
Peter Gordon, chef-patron of Providores, is an uber-romantic. His cooking is eclectic to the point of dementia: no world cuisine is left unplundered and his menus read like imagist poetry: a string of luminous nouns only kept from collapsing into gibberish by plump cushions of qualifying adjectives. So, when I calmly referred earlier to ‘coconut laksa’, what I really meant was ‘Smoked duck, tamarind, liquorice and coconut laksa with green tea noodles, a soft boiled quail’s egg, crispy shallots and coriander’. Sometimes the suspense is almost too much, what on earth – or in water - could possibly attract the following five qualifications: ‘Maple and teriyaki glazed, smoked, Dutch…’ It turns out to be eel, but might as easily have been porcelain or tobacco. Gordon’s menus require a working knowledge of culinary terms in at least six languages, none of them English. I could manage wasabi, tamarind, even lavosh, but had to look up yuzu (a kind of Asian grapefruit), tobikko (the roe of flying fish) and za’atar (a blend of Middle Eastern herbs and sesame seeds). All in a day’s work, given my real job, but even the QI research team drew a blank at panizza. As in ‘black pudding panizza’. The only thing I knew called panizza came from the heart of a crocodile: the foramen of Panizza, a tube that connected the heart’s two main blood vessels and which closed when the crocodile was submerged in water. Given Gordon’s magpie tendencies it wasn’t impossible that he had made a black pudding from reptilian innards, but the reality was almost as unlikely. A panizza turns out to be a species of paper-thin pizza that is filled and rolled. It was apparently ‘invented’ by a Filipino chef called Mau, at an Italian restaurant called ‘C’, in Pampanga, on the island of Luzon. Panizza fever then spread across the Philippines but unlike its unrolled Neapolitan cousin, this has hitherto failed to make the transition to the West. Until now, that is. Mr. Gordon’s blood-sausage filled version of the panizza was now part of a tower on a plate, nestling under a crispy piece of English Middle White pork belly, surrounded by Oloroso-soaked raisins and pickled king oyster mushrooms.
 
And, like almost everything we ate, it was delicious. Possibly the strangest thing of all is that Peter Gordon’s food tastes as well-balanced and restrained as his menu sounds insane. Once you recover from reading the culinary equivalent of a Benetton advert, you’d be hard-pressed not to enjoy the food. Scallops, for example, were perfectly grilled, sweet and plump, and the terrifying sounding clam-pomegranate butter sauce (clam and pomegranate!?) somehow acted to deepen their natural flavour. The Roast Elwy Valley lamb chump (on haricot bean, slow-cooked lamb and fig stew with char-grilled asparagus, Marcona almond with rosemary dressing and feta poppy seed crisp) was really just a richly flavoured, perfectly cooked piece of meat served with a spicy sauce. Ditto the eel, which came with noodles.  It was a bit like preparing for a slasher movie, only to find yourself watching an episode of Inspector Morse.
 
When I see the word ‘fusion’ applied to a restaurant, it usually all I need not to visit. Providores, both the upstairs restaurant and cheaper, livelier Tapa bar downstairs didn’t quite disabuse me of this prejudice, but it did remind that ‘fusion’ is really just what all the best chefs do naturally. They borrow, steal, adapt and find new ways of making ingredients add up to more than the sum of their parts. Peter Gordon just does it better than most. His imagination may be feverish and restless but his palate is sound. He thinks deeply about his combinations and they invariably work. Every now and then his urge to mix things up, throws out a redundant element (my laksa didn’t really need a quails egg bobbing in it like a blind monkey’s eyeball) but it’s worth the risk for a sublime dish like his kataifi, a Middle eastern pastry of intense nutty richness perfectly balanced by the bite of a Japanese roast plum.
 
Brian, my guest, a man whose travel company Turquoise specializes in taking people to places where East and West mingle profitably, had feared I was subjecting him to an upscale Wagamama, or worse still, the wallet-traumatising Asia de Cuba in the St Martin’s Hotel ( ‘Are you familiar with the Asia de Cuba experience? Don’t be  - it’s the annoying idea of ‘sharing’ plates of overpriced, mostly Asian, food). Brian loved Providores, not least because it also has the best New Zealand wine list in London (Peter Gordon is a Kiwi, which helps explain his wide-eyed zeal for other cultures). We tried the Clos Henri, both the Sauvignon and the Pinot Noir. This is a New Zealand vineyard run by French immigrants and the results were two wonderfully refined wines that could easily have come from Sancerre and Burgundy. Like Providores itself, this was fusion of the best possible kind: romantic in spirit; classical in execution.

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