Words by Peter Wolinski
On the show Harry and Paul, there’s one sketch where Harry Enfield plays a long haired, artistic bloke who runs a boutique in a gentrified area of London called “I saw you coming”. He sells cheap tat to the pre-2010s stereotype of an upper middle class ‘yummy mummy’ who is glad to pay vastly inflated prices for something relatively worthless, so long as she believes it’s organic or responsibly sourced or whatever.
The setting of the sketch is what Pontcanna reminds me of now. Only the archetypal yummy mummies are often actually yummy daddies ‘cause, well, it’s not 2008 anymore.
” Pontcannonians are so middle class that they don’t see the need to go to work until Wednesday”
To get to Pontcanna’s delicatessens, shops and boutiques, you fight your way through endless badly parked Porsches and gossiping stay-at-home parents milling about on the pavements only to find that, if it’s a Monday or Tuesday, they’re all closed. Pontcannonians are so middle class that they don’t see the need to go to work until Wednesday.
Thankfully, the guys at Milkwood are hard-working sorts and stay open six days a week. They don’t open on Tuesday lunchtimes, admittedly, but at least they’re proletarian enough to turn up eventually, even if it is in the evening.
The restaurant has made the Michelin Guide again for 2020 and is described by both the tyre merchants and the restaurant themselves as a modern British bistro with a variety of influences.
And a variety there are. Milkwood’s two chefs were trained in the same Italian kitchen, a fact borne out in the number of Italic classics found on the menu. But there’s a myriad of other cuisines chucked in there too. These stretch from the conspicuously Gallic confit duck to the less obviously placed pappardelle (also duck) which is, in fact, an Asian-Italian fusion. More on that dish later.
Yet their wide range is not, to my mind, their standout feature. In my opinion, it is their thrifty-as-heck lunch menu which wins them some brownie points; the Plat du Jour if you fancy impressing your mates or dates.
” It wouldn’t be a bistro without being cheap”
What’ll impress them even more if you decide to split the bill, is that for just £19 you can have three courses (£21 if you add a glass of wine) of food that the Frenchies deem to be good enough to put in their guide. It wouldn’t be a bistro without being cheap, after all.
So, in the post-festive poverty of January, the partner and I decided to get some bang for our bucks. We initially tried a walk-in on a Monday. Then on a Tuesday. Enraged at the bourgeoisie, we just booked in for a Saturday.
The interior is a relaxed and airy affair. Tall, white walls, a huge frontage window harbouring some jaunty hanging lamps and a great big art deco bar that would’ve been right at home in The Great Gatsby.
First course was a ramekin of artichoke chips, buried by the chef under enough grated parmesan to suggest the recent consumption of one too many murder documentaries. At first they crunched, before breaking a moment later into a wave of fiery truffle and a 1-2 nut combo of parmesan and artichoke. To keep things sensible, a second ramekin of aioli was placed adjacently.
Next was pappardelle and duck ragu. What I was expecting here and what I received were two wildly different things. Naturally, I had envisaged a Venetian classic: fresh pappardelle with a tomato-based sauce, packed full of unctuous, tasty Daffy. What I was served instead was an Italian-Asian fusion: fresh pappardelle with a (maybe) tomato-based sauce, packed full of unctuous, tasty Daffy but also featuring a quantity of fennel and star anise sufficient to floor a buffalo. It was explosively tasty, fantastically cooked and, at first, a nice surprise. There was, however, enough duck to make it a real struggle to finish, and I was left for six hours with a taste of aniseed stronger than if I’d downed a bottle of sambuca. Certainly not a dish for the faint-hearted/stomached.
When what I needed most was an intravenous supply of sugar to counteract the amount of duck fat and anise I had just consumed, Milkwood came through with the next best thing.
The chocolate tart I ordered was not, I confess, on the Plat-du-Jour (£2 extra – main menu), but oh was it worth it. I’ve cooked and/or eaten a lot of chocolate tarts in my time but cannot ever remember eating one as dense and indulgent as this. So thick was it, and so heavy, that if you chucked a piece of it at a window, I reckon the window would come off worse. There was some rhubarb on the plate too and a dollop of creme fraiche somewhere, which helped things along, but both paled into insignificance compared to the only thing on the plate which really mattered: that tart.
So my visit to Milkwood turned out to be quite unexpected. They gave me an almost lethal dose of duck fat and rekindled previously repressed memories of aniseed-flavoured, sambuca-induced teenage vomiting. However, these were just issues of quantity. What matters more is that they served me the finest chocolate tart I think I have ever eaten. Didn’t see that coming.