Hidden above the Clapham North pub and reached via a private entrance, Four O Nine is a recent addition to south London's dining scene from chef Iain Smart. Kerstin Kühn went to visit
Four O Nine is a hidden treasure in south London's dining scene - so much so that if you didn't know it was there, you'd possibly walk straight past it. Marked only by an easily missed sign and a menu posted outside, the restaurant is entered by ringing a doorbell and being allowed through a private entrance that leads upstairs to the dining room.
But while its inconspicuousness may not invite passing punters on the lookout for a quick bite, head chef Iain Smart says that it's starting to work in the restaurant's favour.
"When we opened last October, we were really quiet, as only people who had heard of us would come to dine," he says. "But now, as more people know that we're here, it's turning into an advantage, as guests really quite enjoy the privacy of the restaurant."
Indeed, Four O Nine offers an intimate dining experience away from the hustle and bustle of Clapham's busy high street and, with the dining room catering for 60 guests at a time, it comprises a true neighbourhood establishment.
Interiors are simple yet elegant, with dark wooden floors and cream-coloured chairs creating a warm environment, while the starkness of its white bar counter gives the room a modern edge. The walls are covered in faded sepia photographs of surrounding Clapham North, giving local diners a chance to identify their neighbourhood.
Smart, who leads a small kitchen brigade of just four, spent the three-and-a-half years before opening Four O Nine as a sous chef at south London's Michelin-starred Chez Bruce restaurant. The influence of his time under chef-proprietor Bruce Poole is unmistakable in Smart's cooking, and he says that when he first opened the restaurant, the menu was almost a direct replica of the one at Chez Bruce.
He explains: "Chez Bruce is where I learned how to cook, and this is definitely reflected in my menu. But now, more than six months on, I'm really trying to move on and do new things, particularly implementing Asian influences in the otherwise classic French food I serve."
As the restaurant is open for dinner seven days a week, Four O Nine's menu consists of five options for each course, with starters ranging from £6 to £8, mains from £15.50 to £18, and desserts at £6 each, with a selection of cheeses at £7.
Starters represent a mixed bag in terms of flavours, and feature classics such as foie gras and chicken liver parfait with tomato jam and warm toast and leek, potato and rocket soup with garlic croûtons. These stand next to dishes highlighting the Asian influences which Smart says he is keen to incorporate in his menu. These include his signature dish of crisp pork belly, which comes with pickled watermelon, coriander and soy and a crab and mango salad with baby spinach and cumin crisps.
Mains adopt a predominantly French theme, with dishes such as grilled plaice with peas, broad beans, brown shrimp and dill velouté. Roast guinea fowl breast with sauerkraut, crisp potato galette, smoked ham and rosemary bears a strong resemblance to what may be found on the menu at Chez Bruce.
Other mains include pistachio-crusted bream with a sweet tomato broth, courgette and olives and grilled rib-eye steak with marinated portobello mushroom, roast tomato and herb butter.
"Desserts aren't my strong point," says Smart, and while the four options comprise mostly simple classics such as crème brûlée, and English strawberries with crème fraîche, a banana mousse with chocolate and ginger sauce and crisp filo pastry does hint at his intention to bring new flavours into the mix.
What's on the menu
Foie gras and chicken liver parfait with tomato jam and warm toast, £7
Spiced and honey-glazed duck leg with celery purée and Granny Smith apple, £8
Crisp pork belly with pickled watermelon, coriander and soy, £6.50
Roast guinea fowl breast with sauerkraut, crisp potato galette, smoked ham and rosemary, £18
Pistachio-crusted bream with a sweet tomato broth, courgettes and olives, £18
Risotto bianco with giroles, baby vegetables, Parmesan and borlotti bean salad, £15.50
Banana mousse with chocolate and ginger sauce and crisp filo pastry, £6
Hot chocolate and walnut brownie with vanilla ice-cream, £6
Cheeses from Neal's Yard, £7
Four O Nine, 409 Clapham Road, London SW9 9BT. Tel: 020 7737 0722 www.fouronine.co.uk