Franco Taruschio's retirement was a short-lived affair. The former chef-patron of the Walnut Tree Inn is back in the kitchen as consultant to London's Phoenix Bar and Grill. Janet Harmer reports.
Fans of Franco Taruschio will be delighted that the famed Italian-Welsh chef has returned to the kitchen, albeit not on a full-time basis. It was just over a year ago that he sold the Walnut Tree Inn in Abergavenny, Gwent, the restaurant he had run with his wife, Ann, to great acclaim for 38 years. Now, at the Phoenix Bar and Grill in Lower Richmond Road, Putney, south-west London, diners can once again enjoy Taruschio's distinct style of Italian/Asian/British food that has been an inspiration for so long to other chefs.
"It is very good to be in the kitchen again, particularly as it is only for five or six days a month," says Taruschio, whose consultancy role involves writing menus, fine-tuning dishes, teaching the eight-strong brigade and overseeing the kitchen. On a day-to-day basis, Simon Kealy, who worked with Taruschio at the Walnut Tree for six years, runs the kitchen as head chef.
Many ingredients are brought by Taruschio from Abergavenny, where he still lives, to the 90-seat London restaurant. Wild garlic, for instance, is used to make Welsh bubble and squeak. The leaves of the garlic are combined with mashed potato and fried with smoked bacon to make the bubble and squeak, which is served with red snapper (£13.50).
Other ingredients come from further afield - such as the barba di frate (a chard-like leaf that tastes like spinach) from Taruschio's native Italy. This is combined with pasta, wild garlic, sliced onions, chilli and either Parma ham or sun-dried tomatoes (£7 as a starter, £11 as a main). Asian influences, such as the goujonettes of cod with Thai dipping sauce (£6.50), were inspired by Taruschio's adopted Thai daughter.
Taruschio devotees will be particularly thrilled to see the appearance of some of the many dishes that became synonymous with his name at the Walnut Tree. Both Lady Llanover salt duck served with pickled gooseberries and damson (£7.50) and vincisgrassi maceratesi (£8.95/£14.50) - the 18th-century pasta recipe from the Marche region of Italy that Taruschio has adapted with truffles and cream - are on the monthly changing menu.
The Phoenix's à la carte menu, offering a choice of eight to nine dishes at each course, is supplemented by a set lunch and early-bird menu, served before 7.45pm and costing £12 for two courses or £15 for three. Daily covers currently number about 100 with diners spending an average of £32 including wine.
The Phoenix Bar and Grill is owned by Rebecca Mascarenhas and her husband, James Harris, who also own three other neighbourhood restaurants - Sonny (in Barnes, south London, and Nottingham) and Parade in Ealing, west London.
Phoenix Bar and Grill, 162 Lower Richmond Road, London SW15 1LY. Tel: 020 8780 3131
Deep-fried courgette flowers stuffed with ricotta and spinach, £5.50
Crispy crab pancakes, £7.50
Home-cured bresaola with braised artichoke and shaved Parmesan, £7.50
Sea bass with barba di frate and baby artichokes, £15.50
Home-made Italian sausages with butter beans and bruschetta, £9.75
Pan-fried sweetbreads with mushrooms and Marsala, £14.50
Panna cotta with orange salad, £5.75
Gƒteau ambassadeur with brandy cream, £5.75
Semifreddo of ricotta with candied fruit and nuts, £5.75
The three winning menus for the January to March 2002 quarter are Clarks Restaurant, Bournemouth (Caterer, 21 March); Thackeray's, Tunbridge Wells (Caterer, 21 February); and Embassy, London (Caterer, 3 January). All three go through to the shortlist for the 2002 Cateys Menu of the Year award, sponsored by Quorn.