“It’s only arrogance if you’re wrong”, goes the saying. Which perhaps explains a common personality trait that runs through many a great chef whose unflinching confidence in their own ability shines through in what many of us mere mortals would describe as nothing other than arrogance.
Take some of the big names of our time. Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay, even some of the outspoken chefs we have right here in the Midlands. Alongside undoubtedly good cooking, they come with unapologetic sharp-tongued reproaches, unwavering confidence in their own cooking and a distinct lack of concern when it comes to offending or upsetting. Their belief in what they do, and their own skills, talent and resulting food drives them and they don’t need my approval or yours because, well, they know they’re right.
Gerald, owner of La Mesa in Warwick, is cut from the same cloth. The first line of the Warwick restaurant’s simple but effective website will tell you that. In which he informs you that he’s there to improve your life, not f*** it up. And not in any friendly, nice font designed to lure you in. But a firm, slightly shouty one that challenges you to dare disagree.
That’s just the beginning. La Mesa has no set menu – just the promise of a ‘tasting menu’ comprising ‘a soup’, ‘a fish dish’. Those dishes are built around what fresh ingredients Gerald can get hold of that day. And with those ingredients he uses his 20 years living in Valencia and now several more filling his restaurant in Warwick night-in, night-out with eager diners to transform them into food that’s as unapologetic as he is. And predictably wonderful.
Gerald has told me himself that I’m too nice. I should be more acerbic and perhaps I’d get more readers. He probably has a point, and I even had a strange idea that I could introduce a bit of acidity into this blog with my review of La Mesa. But I’m afraid I can’t.
From the warm welcome by a team of staff he has put together who are as down-to-earth as he is, yet happy to make up for his brusqueness with a bit of niceness themselves, to the moody interior of the small, neighbourhood-style restaurant, it’s no secret that he’s created a winner. It’s not somewhere you’ll see posting recipe creations on Instagram, or entering awards. It doesn’t need to. It’s packed every night based on word of mouth, first-hand knowledge, and perhaps a craving for something real amid the world of flower walls, selfies and food that puts aesthetics over execution.
The open kitchen sits right next to the dining room. In fact, it’s the thoroughfare to get to a back room and the loo, which means this open kitchen isn’t about Gerald posing for photos or waving to you from afar, but is about showing you that he really isn’t bothered by you watching him plate up dishes or critiquing his cooking. If you don’t like it, you know where to go.
We start with a sweet potato soup, rich and autumnal, with smoked cheese and apple. Chunks of homemade bread drizzled in decent olive oil are there for the dunking, and probably useful in soaking up some of the very nice Rioja that we found ourselves guzzling thanks to the combination of a busy few days and the discovery of yet another great place that allows you to exhale the worries of the week away.
Next is chorizo in red wine. The simplest dish I’ve had in a UK restaurant in some time, yet predictably delightful. It’s followed by tender stem broccoli with a dollop of a peanutty style sauce that somehow blends seamlessly into a menu that’s Spanish in style, despite its similarity to satay. I’d have perhaps liked my broccoli a bit crunchier, but no doubt Gerald will tell me I know nothing, so I’m happy to bow to his superior knowledge. There are bigger things in life than arguing over broccoli.
A clam dish sees the shellfish cooked with rice and a creamy ouzo sauce that reminds me of holiday food, but not the predictable kind that comes via plastic menus with pictures and ‘two paellas and jug of sangria for 10 euro signs’. Huge prawns remind you that Gerald is about ingredients, not pretty plating and mucking around unnecessarily. Drenched in garlic butter, just the look and smell is enough to have you ripping the heads off and relieving them of their shells like the latest object of your desire.
By the ‘meat’ course we’re two bottles of Rioja in and I’ll confess to regretting my enthusiastic wine consumption. Some might disagree on whether Gerald and his middle-finger approach to people like me deserve respect, but his food definitely does, and I’ll forever regret not giving a slow-cooked, smoke duck dish the time and attention it deserved. Having had the privilege of trying another of La Mesa’s meat dishes on a previous visit – rare beef with a rich, sexy truffle mash, I know he does this chapter of the meal well, and it’s for that course that I’m desperate to return and try again, with less wine and more water.
Dessert is a similar story – it’s a creamy, layered creation that’s probably the most photo-worthy one of the night. Unless you’ve caned your wine like us and have a slightly blurry picture. I know I enjoyed it, how could you not. But by that point Jamie and I were engrossed in an alcohol-fuelled, joy-soaked, smug ramble at how we’d found yet another jewel.
La Mesa has everything I raved about in Il Portico, and handily is right here in Warwickshire. There’s no word-laden descriptions, crazy cocktails, or plates comprising 25 elements carefully placed with tweezers. There’s no lengthy story about the owner’s life, his history and his talents as a chef. He doesn’t care about that stuff, and he also doesn’t care whether you like that or not. He wants to cook. He wants you to eat it. And then he wants you to leave. No doubt somewhere in there he wants you to enjoy it and maybe come back, but if you don’t, it won’t bother him.
Like its owner, La Mesa is unapologetic. It doesn’t need reviews from people like me – or even people far better than me. It’s a one-off, a black sheep, or whatever other metaphor I could think of that will have Gerald rolling his eyes at my attempt to sum up in words what he creates through attention to all the right details and a thorough disregard for anything else. It, and he, are about as far from me in approach and ethos as you can get. And bloody great as a result.