With every good restaurant, there’s one thing that will draw you in at first. Lorne’s initial hook for me is its pedigree: partners Katie Exton (sommelier and front of house) and Peter Hall (chef) have between them worked in some serious restaurant royalty: the Square, where the duo met, the River Cafe, Chez Bruce, Brawn and San Francisco’s hugely celebrated Benu. Phil Howard, formerly of the Square and now at Elystan Street, has a slice of it. CV-wise, it’s hard to better. But it takes more than the hook to encourage customers to come back time and time again.
It’s Exton who would make me want to be a regular. I haven’t met someone with such an evolved service ethic in a long time; she could moonlight as a mind-reader. As soon as you think of a niggle without even voicing it (“Umm, not that keen on this table”), she’s on it, moving us from a two-top squashed beside other customers who could hear our every bitch and snark to a larger table where we can spread out and set about ordering from an intriguing menu. Hugely knowledgable about wine from a splendid list, without being spoddy, she’s the dream hostess.
And it’s the beef short rib that would make me a devotee. As this humble cut arrives at the table, the inches-thick slab trembles and jiggles on its bone more like panna cotta than a fibrous chunk of protein. I’ve no idea how many hours they’ve cooked it for (in a lot of good wine) but it has been denatured in the best possible way, slumping under the fork into a joyful mess of fat-basted tenderness. There’s pear for crisp bite, just-cooked cavolo nero for persuasive contrast, onion vinaigrette for sultry sweet-sourness. This is the cure to whatever ails you, comfort and contentment on the plate.
I get the distinct impression that, with Lorne, its owners have created the kind of restaurant they’d like to go to themselves; there’s a refreshing lack of concept or spreadsheet-driven mentality. The menu could be categorised as modern British: fine native produce with mandatory touches of exotica. So quail might come with mountain yam, bream with puntarelle, chunks of minerally golden beetroot with the gentle bitterness of pretty castelfranco, soft-roasted chunks of cauliflower stalks – who knew? – and treacly parsnips in a light yoghurt dressing.
It’s a soothing place to be, Lorne, belying its almost-Victoria-station location, the design simple and clean, with trailing pot plants, pale wood and cool marble. It could be mistaken for a slightly worthy temple to clean eating, if it weren’t for that sybaritic, generous and joyous wine list, which we hit a bit too enthusiastically (and get the bill to prove it): our Mâcon-Bussières, as luscious as far grander chardonnays; a clever house cocktail based on beetroot and vodka; a daft fizzy pink with pudding.
Details are important: the virgin olive oil, emerald-green and alive with peppery kick, is cold-pressed by a pal in Sicily. As is the unabashed richness of certain dishes: some seriously memorable black pudding with crisp-skinned guinea fowl, witch’s cauldron-black mushroom sauce and charred calçots. The pudding is like mulch and loam and fudge and blood in the most delicious way, loose-grained and coarse, studded with nuggets of fat and a backnote of red chilli; I find out later that it’s the recherché Christian Parra boudin noir, as used, I think, at Brawn (and certainly at Brawn chef Ed Wilson’s previous gig at Terroirs. Forgive my nerdiness: I find this kind of restaurant, er, bloodline enthralling). I could happily eat this stuff with a spoon, like Nutella.
I’m not overwhelmed by an over-stiff custard with rhubarb, pistachio and cubes of chewy gingerbread, but the pal’s chocolate pavé with banana, peanut and praline is as fine a piece of the patissier’s art as you’ll find outside Paris. And cheese, an interesting selection, is cut without a thought to bean-counting.
Victoria, long a bit of a restaurant desert, has recently started throwing up restaurant-infested glass tower developments like glittering urban stalagmites. Designed to scoop up the plutocrats who throng through the station daily on their way to Bexleyheath, perhaps? Lorne isn’t part of this: in personality, it’s more Barbara Pym Pimlico than vulgar Victoria. I’ve no doubt it’ll find the devoted local audience it deserves. But if you fancied the travel, it would be worth that, too.
Lorne 76 Wilton Road, London SW1, 020-3327 0210. Open Mon-Sat, lunch and dinner. About £38 a head for three courses, plus drinks and service.
Value for money 7/10