Best Bit: The Butter!
When we first started our weekly mid-week lunches over a year ago, long before this blog was a twinkle in our digestive systems, we decided that Paprika should be one of our first destinations. The reason for this priority was that we had a horrible feeling it might disappear at any moment. We had an amazing meal that day and are very happy that it’s still here for our return visit. However I still have a sense of unease.
I guess I don’t really get who eats there, and when. We visited for lunch, and we were the only diners (I believe it was the same last time we went). We have thought about going for dinner before but it closes at 9pm (9.30pm on Friday and Saturday), which seems a bit restrictive. It would be great for grabbing dinner before a show, but it’s not particularly well placed for anything unless you are going to a performance at the Meating Place. But I really do hope it keeps on going, because it is a unique and wonderful place.
The whole thing proceeds with a Gallic disregard for anything that might be considered dining convention. There’s no drinks menu, no licence, no set menu. The décor is absolutely eccentric and charming, in a way some places wrongly think they can achieve by buying a job lot of Readers Digest editions from a charity shop and flinging them around the place. For some reason it seems to have a tap as the focal point for the entire bistro, possibly to emphasise their unique selling point of serving tap water. But it is a wonderful place to watch people wandering along Catherine Street from the large windows.
In the absence of any drinks list or alcohol we followed the subtle hint and went for tap water, but when my wife wanted something more interesting they provided a little jug of elderflower cordial to mix in, at no extra cost, a lovely touch. A minor quibble, there was no ice with the water which would have been exceedingly welcome on such a hot day.
Given our time constraints we passed on starters, including an intriguing dish of pork belly and octopus, but instead ordered the bread basket. I’m very glad we did for it featured not only a duo of breads (normal and olive) but a trio of butters. The variety of colour, texture and taste on offer made the bread basket potentially the high point of the meal. There was a tangy black squid ink butter with chunks of garlic (my wife’s favourite), a sweet pink beetroot butter and a buttery butter butter (which I think was my preferred choice).
Then the mains arrived, each with their own little jug of sauce that our waiter poured whilst explaining their contents. I chose the Grilled Bistro Steak with Triple Cooked chips. All of the non-steak components were excellent. The chips were crispy on the outside and fluffy in the middle (though I confess I do prefer stringy fries more with a steak), the red wine jus was sticky and sweet, even the carrot was a delight, caramelised and sharp. The only slight disappointment was the steak itself. This might be because the last time we were here I had the best steak in living memory (mine and humanity’s), but I found it a bit chewy and reminiscent of school dinners (not that I ever had steak for school dinners, but something about the texture of the meat brought back unpleasant canteen memories).
Mrs Mid-Week Lunch was more fortunate in her meal. She chose trout with gin and apple sauce and beetroot gnocchi. It was exquisite in taste and appearance managing to tread the fine line between being delicate and very flavoursome. The garnish was an amazing large onion crisp. My wife was overwhelmed and gives it the fine praise it deserves by rating it the best main course so far in the history of St. Albans Midweek lunch! Congratulations Paprika!
Service was very attentive, possibly a touch over-attentive as the only diners. Water was refilled constantly and there was always an awareness of a presence. When my wife asked for the bill ensuring that I would be back at work promptly she was scolded slightly by the waiter; “The gentleman is still eating.” It didn’t get nasty however and the price, just over £30, was more than reasonable for the outstanding level of the cuisine. I was back at work with the allotted 1 hour period feeling very satisfied.
I am so glad Bistro Paprika exists in St Albans, and even though there are places I probably prefer I would recommend it more than anywhere else. I feel we all have a moral obligation to prove that somewhere as idiosyncratic and delicate can survive in this rough world of market forces and Maison Blanc.
Thank you Paprika, we award you our second highest score so far;