Caractère Restaurant, Notting Hill
Updated: Dec 11, 2019
There are a couple of waiters smoking outside as we arrive. Lounging against the brick wall, effortlessly cool, impeccably turned out in their waiting staff whites.
As we enter through the restaurant's heavy curtain, I am immediately struck by how much of a match the restaurant is to them. Or they to it. Impeccable, effortless, cool.
The room is decorated in a wealth of warm colours. Plush velvet seats in ruby reds and olive greens. Gorgeous earthy exposed bricks, alternating with smooth walls painted the colour of a deep baked clay.
And all of it bathed in light from a multitude of globes, suffusing everything in a golden glow.
On a Saturday evening there is a buzz in the place, an amiable murmur of people socialising, glad of each others company. It is the kind of humming that is welcoming rather than off-putting, and draws us further into the room.
Once ensconced at our table, we start with aperitifs as is our wont. A Negroni for me, something with bubbles for Julien, and both drinks are perfectly on point.
The menu at Caractère is modern French-Italian food and we eagerly check out the offerings, which are grouped into 6 sections with titles like 'Curious', 'Delicate' or 'Strong'. There is a tasting menu option to choose a dish from each 'trait', but we decide to simply go a la carte.
While we're still perusing our options, a waiter arrives with a tablet of amuses-bouches.
Now, no matter how many nice restaurants we end up in, this is something I never get tired of - these little bite-sized surprises meant to show off the chef's skill and to entertain your taste buds. And these do that nicely, the star for us being the mini bacon and cheese butties.
A little while later, our cocktail-induced mellowing is starting to kick in, and we've moved on to wine, when the starters arrive.
My choice is the Celeriac “cacio e pepe” with extra-aged balsamic vinegar. For those non-italian speakers like myself, 'cacio e pepe' simply means cheese and pepper. And really that says it all - creamy cheese-covered strips of celeriac that were zingily peppery. Not a dish to knock your socks off, but suavely satisfying nonetheless.
Julien starts with the mushroom risotto with hazelnuts, and it gets a similar review - a well-prepared and enjoyable dish that is a solid opener to the meal.
Neither starter is the kind of creation you'd write sonnets about, but both are smooth and accomplished. And I'm starting to wonder if perhaps that is exactly what creators Emily Roux and Diego Ferrari have set out to do with their establishment, with dishes that are comfy and hearty, and an atmosphere that is warmly enveloping.
Then we move on to the mains, and things kick up a gear. Julien has decided on the lamb with chard and glazed potatoes, and everything about it makes my mouth water. The lamb is just the right shade of juicy pink, the chard a deep healthy green, and the potatoes look unctuous and crisp. And all of it covered in a gravy that makes me want to lick his plate. The look of enjoyment on Julien's face when he tucks in assures me that it tastes as good as it looks.
I have gone for the pork cheek ravioli with roast baby onions and glazed vegetables. And it is astounding. Every bite is creamily rich and delicious. It has been a while since I enjoyed a plate of pasta quite so much, and a generous helping of time passes in companionable silence as we are both submerged in culinary delight.
'That's more like it!', I think, as we finally resurface. If the starters were an 8, then the mains are a resounding 10 out of 10. Job done. Mic dropped.
Except that we still have one more course to go.
Neither of us are huge dessert eaters, but here we decide to soldier on. I'm not sure matters are helped either by the fact that this section of the menu is entitled 'Greedy'. Maybe this is the reason that neither of us opts for the dark chocolate praline and caramel bar - the obvious choice?
Instead, I have the strawberries on a sablé breton (shortbread to us Brits) with mascarpone sorbet. The sablé is as generously buttery as any in France, and the sweetness of the coulis is nicely offset by the light freshness of the strawberries. It is a great way to finish the meal.
Julien concludes with the savarin, a cake drenched in orange liqueur, topped in traditional Chantilly and maybe less traditional mango, coconut and lime. It takes us both back to Naples and our first encounter with a baba au rum. And judging by how Julien devours it, it is every bit as good.
And so the evening draws to a close. Sated and satisfied, we make our way back through the heavily curtained entrance and out into the real world. Down the streets of Notting Hill and onto a London train for our journey back home.
Caractère is one of those neighbourhood restaurants that is well worth traveling for, and we will certainly be back.