No 97, restaurant, bar, gin, Surbiton, 2018, review,

WHERE TO EAT No 97, Surbiton

01.02.2018 / words: Rich Lee / image: Fiona Digby-Jones

A friendly neighbourhood gin bar and restaurant in sleepy Surbiton, No 97 both soothes and dazzles with its easy ambience and stunning food...

It takes a special kind of idiot to visit a gin bar while in the white-knuckled grip of Dry January. Better, on reflection, to make that grip an open palm slap to the face of the monster who invented such ascetic punishment during the most miserable month of the year. Happily, though, No 97, found along Surbiton’s foodie mile, Maple Road, appeared to be an uplifting place to spend a long and languid lunch, regardless of whether you indulge in their mind-boggling collection of over 100 varieties of the crystal spirit.
Yes, gin is definitely the thing at this neighbourhood bar, restaurant and café, but a casual peek at Instagram prior showed some very enticing dishes: perky colours, chunky ingredients, rubbly textures and scattershot presentations that are, of course, rarely anything but. Ever a sucker for a pretty plate, and restaurants that exude a bold indie spirit, we lurched hungrily in the direction of Surbiton and No 97.
A dream of local couple Sam and Alex Berry, they opened the place last year with the kind of attention to detail and singular vision you’d ascribe to restaurant moguls, not Mom & Pop. Yet this might just be how empires begin (they’re already hatching their second, ‘114’ in Teddington.) It’s a relatively small but superbly crafted space of hard angles and soft edges, sweeping petrol blue banquette seating, coppertone tables and lamps, and a central bar (which serves as a chef’s table during special tastings) fronting a shiny open kitchen like the prow of a ship.
There’s more than a whiff of Parisian bistro about No 97, and it’s not entirely affected nor disguised beneath its contemporary city sheen. This is evidently a place for a gallic-paced breakfast, a breezy lunch or intimate dinner; a drop-in shop for lovely food and lovelier gin, and catch-ups with the warm and gregarious team who make it feel like home.
Explore further, though, and you’ll find a subterranean speakeasy and a glass-encased dining room out back for a little semi-alfresco dining. Upstairs in the main dining room, we took our table and were immediately offered a drinks list groaning with those multitudinous gins and other artisan spirits and boozy quenchers. My fad-enforced sobriety flapping in a gale of temptation, our sage server, Kim, glimpsed which way my wind was blowing and brought me a virgin cocktail that was as crisp, clean and complex as any good gin-soaked concoction.

Octopus,quinoa, chorizo, haricot & wasabi
The weekday lunch menu is sparse yet very reasonably priced, offering two courses for £15 or three for £20 and around nine dishes and extra sides. We began with bread cooked fresh on site and homemade treacle and horseradish butters; always a good sign when a kitchen is in control of even the humblest details. To start, and a special of octopus: a fat, springy arm given a gentle blistering in the pan for a lovely rusty crust and nutty shingle from toasted quinoa, over squidgy haricot beans spiked with chorizo and a gentle wasabi foam.
But this was almost upstaged by a plate of purest rustic pleasure. A puck of herby chicken and sweet-salty ham hock, strewn with petals of burnt onion, streaks of tarragon cream, a hint of blue cheese and two quenelles, one with the fresh mustard punch of celeriac, the other with earthy mushrooms. All my favourite things on one plate, in other words, and enough to banish any January blues, no gin required.

Pork belly, pork fillet, red cabbage, parsnip & pear
Mains only raised the bar further. We’re talking pork, belly and fillet, both succulent and buttery and crowned with crispy parsnip shavings, above red cabbage, a sticky-sweet glaze and pebbles of crunchy roasted pear. With dishes like this, I could happily languish in winter a little while longer. There was Irish hake; skin crisped gold with meltingly tender flesh over translucent folds of leek and a glossy wasabi sauce, studded with a few clams, mussels and samphire.
Desserts were an almost unnecessary victory lap - which made them mandatory, of course. A set banana custard, all satin and silk against cracked pecans and dabs of toffee, coffee, and a swirl of chocolate, was a child’s dessert that had grown up but hadn’t quite lost its innocence. An apricot and rosemary cake, meanwhile, brought an astonishingly fluffy and flavoursome sponge, all jammy fruit and syrup and squidgy depths puckering up to salted caramel.

Banana custard, pecan, salted caramel, vanilla
Honestly, casual lunchtime dining rarely gets better than this.  Even in sleepy Surbiton, No 97 can easily take on the big city boys with dishes that surprise, subvert and satisfy. When I return, and return I shall now that January is finally retreating, it’ll be to plunge fully, tipsily into No 97’s bohemian delights, artisan gin clinking and spilling in one hand… and a menu in the other.
Food Total for 2 = £43.5

No 97 is at 97 Maple Road, Surbiton, KT6 4AW / Tel: 020 3411 9797