There are many good things about tasting menus: you don't have to bother to read the menu, for instance, or wait for other people to read the menu with the kind of attention to detail that suggests they've only just learnt to read, and everyone at the table gets the same thing, so there's no possibility of food envy, or what I like to think of as 'an opportunity to swap plates, sometimes in the form of a hostile takeover'. There are, however, certain downsides to tasting menus: there's always far too much food, and one has to eat what is put in front of you, which in many ways undermines the basic premise of a restaurant - you get to choose what you want to eat. (I am very clear that this is one of the most pertinent features of a restaurant, having spent most of my childhood being told that 'this isn't a restaurant' when I asked if there was any choice in what we had for dinner. Another significant feature - restaurants have real puddings, not just 'a piece of fruit').
Michael Riemenschneider has opened a new restaurant which seeks to address these tasting menu downfalls: Canvas, which is approximately 4 minutes walk from Sloane Square tube, allows its guests to make up their own tasting menu. You are presented with a discreet white card of a menu, and choose which of the listed dishes you want to eat, in 1-16 course amalgamations. For those of you who feel panicked, there are also pre-made tasting menus on offer, in the same increasingly grotesque amounts.
The food choices fit onto a single-sided white card because Canvas is the type of restaurant which doesn't believe in adjectives. Personally, I like this, seeing it as a necessary pendulum swing away from the existential absurdity of some menus, which can feel more like the outpourings of a frustrated novelist than the listing of food items. There is something satisfyingly solid about ordering 'pigs cheek, with lentils'. 'I like food that hasn't been mucked about with,' I told my friend. He looked at me oddly, because I was drinking a caramelized passion fruit martini. (I was drinking a caramelized passion fruit martini because I adore food that has been mucked about with. Along with fancy-dress costumes for sausage dogs, and those miniature pots of jam one can steal from fancy hotels, there is nothing I like more.)
'But sometimes,' I protested to my friend, who, now I come to think of it, knows far too much about me, and must be silenced. 'Sometimes I like good, old-fashioned, plain fare. A return to Puritan values, you know.' My friend looked at me in silence. 'I am a multifaceted person,' I exclaimed, finishing my cocktail and wondering what I should order next.
As it turns out, it was a good thing I am such an adaptable and complex character, because the food at Canvas is nothing if not mucked-about with. Rarely have I been so struck by the discrepancy between the no-nonsense language of a menu, and the intricate, fanciful arrival of our orders. 'This is why it's called Canvas,' I told my friend, as I scooped up tiny dabs of sauce, and little smears of dressing. 'I think it's called Canvas because you get to choose what you eat,' he suggested, his mouth full of very good venison. At this point I wanted to steal the rest of his food from his plate, to help provide him with a 'clean canvas', and also because I am not looking for a friend who constantly disagrees with me, by being 'right'.
Canvas, I am told from TripAdvisor, is the 'perfect romantic restaurant'. I was nervous about this, because there is nothing worse than not being able to see one's food, except possibly taking a platonic friend to 'the perfect romantic restaurant'. Luckily, the type of people who write lengthy comments on TripAdvisor are the same type of people who think Wagamamas and airport hotel restaurants are 'romantic'. (I can see what they mean. Nothing screams romance like strip lighting and sharing tables with strangers. I personally get very nervous when a boyfriend suggests that we eat at a Harvester, in case he tries to propose). Canvas is not a romantic restaurant. It is light, and starkly modern, and the waiters come to your table every 10 minutes to clear your plates and present you with the next part of your tasting menu.
What Canvas is, however, is a restaurant with a very clear premise - to solve the tasting menu. I am aware that this is less laudable than, say, Ippudo, whose proposition is to 'conflate a nightclub with a restaurant', but still, it is nice to have a purpose. On this, Canvas is very good indeed. The waiting staff are well-informed and helpful, and the menu, in its own understated way, offers a solid and inventive choice of dishes. Perhaps the only moment Canvas oversells its central point is in its portion sizes - but then perhaps not everyone wants to leave a dinner too full to move. Maybe this, after all, is why Canvas is the 'perfect romantic restaurant'.