So this is Shoe Shop. A small bare room, flooded by natural light on a long summer’s evening. Bare tables not laid for dinner, and no candles. A diminutive plastic sleeved menu with one-word dish descriptions. No wine list either, but a load of bottles on a shelf to peruse (or take home). Shoe Shop are certainly doing it their way.
The name may fox some people, too. Before its most recent incarnation, an unpretentious Fortess Road caff, it was a footwear outlet, but we’re guessing original signage wasn’t, alas, unearthed, as at nearby E.Mono or the Home & Colonial stores on Queen’s Crescent. Still, it references the current trend for restoring a building’s history, as the new owners of the Torriano hope to do by reinstating the name Rose & Crown.
An all-day cafe and bistro, Shoe Shop – the latest upmarket opening on the stretch following fishmonger, butcher and kid-friendly cafe – serves coffee, breakfast, lunch and weekend brunch, with a simple post-work evening menu. Even better, it’s a wine bar and off license too. And the pedigree of the Australian chef-owner is unquestionable: Paul Merrony ran the acclaimed Giaconda Dining Rooms on Denmark Street for many years, which had a similar feel, although we were never quite wowed enough by its pared-down cooking to make it our Soho regular.
But this kind of no-fuss French bistro is a rarity in NW5, which is why the place might just hit the right note. In an age of flash new openings like Q Grill or quirky sharing plate neighbourhood haunts like Mayfields (see below), it’s a relief to be presented with a plate of something so traditional. In fact, minimalist items like “globe artichoke”, “steak tartare” and “HB eggs” (“hard boiled”, explained the smiling waiter), at least provoke interaction.
We shared two starters: chicken liver pate, as silky as a parfait, was understated yet held quiet sway over pleasantly chewy slices of lightly toasted baguette. Baked mushrooms, meanwhile, bobbed about on a sea of butter, sweet and meaty with rich garlicky blobs of sauce. After a self-imposed post-holiday week of light salads, this was all starting to feel pretty naughty, especially with a smooth chilled Beaujolais in tow.
So yes, the food is simple, rustic, hearty: a main of “leg of lamb steak” arrived capped with honey-sweet roast tomatoes and swimming in parsley butter, but the meat, though pink, was a tad tough. And the jury’s out on straw potatoes generally: what’s the point of them?
The best dish was, predictably enough, a Gallic classic. Billed merely as “rib-eye steak”, it arrived juicily medium-rare and smothered with a luxuriously creamy shallot and green peppercorn sauce. Frites? Perfect. The plate was suitably fought over; licked clean.
For the duration of our visit – a spontaneous decision, after a pint at the Junction on a dreary grey evening – a stream of couples and passers-by stopped at the menu in the window, furrowed their brows and moved on. Sure, it’s only been open a fortnight, but we were surprised to see just two other tables were occupied. Yet our experience was still more than convivial, and we lingered, enjoying the lively parade of pedestrians up and down Fortess Road.
The subtlety of the operation extends to the website too: there’s no phone or email, just a menu and address. My only concern is that the whole thing is simply too low-key, although isn’t that a strength too? And next time, I’d try brunch or something lighter, more summery: house-smoked haddock with beetroot and creamed onion, perhaps, or a grilled lemon sole with salad, both of which were chalked up on the specials blackboard.
So let’s support them and hope the concept works; it really needs to be a word-of-mouth hit to survive. And to all those who frequent Stingray, Nuraghe and Lalibela, shake things up a bit and try this one out. It’s worth it.