From the outside, Putney Bridge doesn't look all that promising. The building, designed by the swanky architectural firm of Paskin Kyriakides Sands, resembles a ship in a bottle that someone's attempted to turn inside out. That's appropriate in a way since it's right beside the Thames overlooking the real Putney Bridge. If you're anywhere else in the vicinity, the view is somewhat marred by this glass-and-metal folly, but if you're inside it, it doesn't matter. At night, when the Bridge is all lit up, this is a rather idyllic spot.
The restaurant had teething problems when it first opened in 1997, but the arrival of Anthony Demetre as head chef in 1998 soon put paid to them. Over the past five years, it has become a firm neighbourhood favourite, attracting customers from Putney, Barnes, Wimbledon and Richmond. Indeed, it's become such an institution it ranks alongside Chez Bruce and Riva as one of the most popular restaurants south of the river. If you want to witness affluent suburban London at play, just come along to Putney Bridge on a Sunday lunchtime.
The general manager, William Smith, described the food as "modern French" but it looked suspiciously like nouvelle cuisine to me. Dishes are served on huge white plates, with fairly small portions marooned in the middle, accompanied by little dribbles of sauce. The vegetables look like they've been genetically modified in order to maximise the use of space on a baking tray. I was given a roast potato that was the size and shape of a Bryant and May matchbox.
Nouvelle cuisine is currently out of fashion, but after my meal at Putney Bridge I rather hope it makes a comeback. Usually, when I leave a restaurant I have to un-tuck my shirt in order to conceal the fact that I've had to undo the top button of my trousers. This time, though, I managed to keep them fastened.
I had the set lunch--a snip at £18.50--starting with game terrine and following up with roast pheasant. Both were very good, but the best thing of all was an amuse bouche of squash soup that appeared at the beginning of the meal. Then again, given how dainty the portions are, perhaps this wasn't an amuse bouche at all, but a normal serving. It's the one dish I could happily have done with some more of.
My wife had a delicious little salad followed by some gnocchi which she said was infinitely superior to the gnocchi she'd had at Sketch. That tasted like bacon rind, apparently. We were accompanied by our four-month-old daughter and, therefore, couldn't complain about the two squawking babies in the corner, accompanied by seven Japanese ladies, all jabbering away like mad. The people next to them did, though. They told the manager it was like sitting next to "a bunch of chickens" and insisted on being moved.
There were a surprising number of couples given that it was a Wednesday lunchtime. On our right sat a very smartly-dressed pair who looked as though they were celebrating their silver wedding anniversary. The tables were spaced quite far apart and the atmosphere was rather intimate. My wife and I agreed that, as a spot for a romantic dinner, Putney Bridge would have been a far better choice than La Poule au Pot. After our disastrous dinner there a couple of weeks ago, it's become known in our household as "the pot of poo".
The best possible time to go to Putney Bridge, though, is March 28--the day of the Boat Race. It's situated bang opposite the starting flag. Indeed, I myself will probably be here, fortifying myself on squash soup, since I've agreed to participate in a charity warm-up event in which middle-aged old boys race against each other. My team are in with a good chance because Jeffrey Archer is in our boat and we all know how competitive he is. I just hope the Cambridge lot don't point out that he never actually went to Oxford.