At a time when owners are playing it very safe, hospitality concepts such as The Cheese Barge in Paddington make me very giddy. It’s a barge where the entire menu – starters, mains and pudding – revolves around cheese. A barge de fromage, if you will.
Even just writing the booking in my diary made my heart dance, due to its bolshie yet delicious-sounding daftness, and because opening any restaurant involves all manner of meetings, business plans and feedback from naysayers. So I’m envisaging that before this 96ft-long double-decker vessel of curds made its – cough – “whey” to Paddington Basin, there will have been a considerable amount of quibbling from bystanders along the lines of: “So, there’s cheese for all three courses, even pudding?” and “But what about lactose-intolerants or aquaphobics?”, not to mention, “You’re docking it where? Paddington?! In the middle of an unlovable urban waterfront development where the Starbucks is one of the prettier bits?”
None of these things derailed the plans of Mathew Carver, the man behind the venture, but then he’s got form, having previously launched Pick & Cheese, a cheesy conveyor-belt joint in Covent Garden, where 25 different cheeses spin past under cloches, a bit like in a Yo! Sushi; there’s also a restaurant in Camden, a cheese street food truck and a shop called Funk in Hackney. Carver has hit on a notion, which I don’t disagree with, that we possibly lust after cheese a lot more than we acknowledge. It’s not weird to make a pilgrimage to a pudding-focused restaurant, such as Cake & Bubbles by Albert Adrià or the Dominique Ansel bakery in Belgravia (which, sadly, closed last summer), so why not honour that other great passion of people who possibly know they could be eating “cleaner”, but, well, life is short, so what the hell?
That brigade would enjoy a pungent, blue-veined Cropwell Bishop to start, stuffed into sweet, yielding, plump prunes and topped with crisp bacon. Then, perhaps, a 400g wheel of baked, milky-white, oozing Baron Bigod served with Coombeshead sourdough, garlic-roasted new potatoes, truffled mushrooms and Ampleforth beer chutney. Then how about a mascarpone-laden pudding with brown sugar meringue and cider brandy-poached peaches. See, now it doesn’t seem so strange at all, does it?
The phrase “showcasing British produce” is flung around willy-nilly on menus these days, but in The Cheese Barge’s case, it is genuinely employing and experimenting with some of the UK’s loveliest things, making pommes aligot with crumbly Kirkham’s lancashire and grilled cheese sandwiches with Brue Valley mozzarella made in Glastonbury. You can even pop by just to sit on the open-top deck terrace and order a beer (craft, of course) and a £10 cheeseboard filled with Sinodun Hill, Gorwydd Caerphilly and Spenwood; a £4 side plate of Young Buck comes with house-made chocolate digestives.
Alternatively, you can sit indoors in a pleasantly swanky dining room downstairs and go for the full four courses. It’s a peculiar sensation, I’ll admit, trying to order from a menu where absolutely everything sounds delicious, yet it’s all from the same sub-category of delicious, so there’s a chance it may tip you over into queasy. Do you begin confidently with a bowl of Westcombe fried curried curds and chilli honey? Answer: yes. These things are filthily good: crisp, plump, cheesy bullets with a sweet, chip-shop-curry kick.
Next up, a humongous three-cheese pasty (Quicke’s, Ogleshield and Cornish gouda) with house ketchup – gorgeous pastry, but the filling’s perhaps a little runny; next time, I’ll have the squash spätzle made with English pecorino instead. If there was any disappointment, it was the “sharing” main of a rather small coil of pork, fennel and red wine sausage with the aforementioned aligot, which at £25 may raise a few eyebrows at being told to share it. That said, both the sausage and the potato were exceedingly rich, so maybe less is more, though good luck arguing that with greedy types who’ll see it more as an amuse-bouche. The mascarpone pudding, meanwhile, was thoughtfully balanced, booze-laced and topped with Bell Heather honey. It’s worth holding a little stomach room back for this final push into cheesy stupefaction.
I went to Paddington Basin certain this would be something of a jokey, themed restaurant where I’d eat a glorified Cathedral City Breville and disembark in search of a lunch in a hurry. Instead, we sat for almost three hours, nibbling plates of Spenwood with quince or more Kirkham’s with homemade Yorkshire fruit cake. First a truck, then a barge and next, I’m hoping, a cheese-filled 737, where the destination is irrelevant and the cheese … well, the sky is the limit. It’s been a long and upsetting time for restaurants. A barge filled to the brim with fromage is silly, but fun, and I like it.