If I had to use one word to describe my visit to Divo, it would have to be disappointment. I'd been deeply intrigued by all the terrible reviews and had gone expecting... I am not sure what exactly, but certainly not what we got which was damn good meal. And not just damn good for Eastern European comfort food, but damn good full stop.
Sure, the place is ostentatious, with flat-screen TVs in fake gilded frames (luckily turned off), elaborately carved wooden pillars around the bar and the most amazingly ornamental, flower-patterned enamel in the bathroom. But the owners have clearly had a bit of rethink since the dire reviews.
Gone - to my huge disappointment - are the waitress' Ukrainian folk outfits with mini skirts. Gone is the £320 caviar pancakes (though may be these are now in a separate menu that doesn't get given the plebs like us) and the Ukrainian wine. Instead we sipped on a very nice French house red for a very reasonable £14.50 a bottle. We also tried some kvas (£3) - a drink made with fermented rye bread, which in my Russian childhood days used to be sold from a tap on the back of special mini-oil-tanker-style lorries. Alas, it turns out, the kvas of more childhood days was akin to the bottles of old fashioned lemonade in the supermarket. The version here was authentic, home-made and heavy on the bread flavours. Uncouth that I am, I didn't like it nearly as much as the fizzier, sugarier mass-produced stuff. They also passed the tap water test with flying colours, bringing a jug when asked and frequently replenishing both our glasses and the jug. In fact throughout, service was very attentive (the waitresses now wear red blouses and black trousers).
The starter of salo (£7) entirely transformed this fatty, common-as-muck but delicious to my Russian taste buds lump of lard into a dainty dish worthy of any upmarket modern eaterie. The slices were wafer thin, daintily arranged on a slice of toasted rye bread and complemented with greenery and capers.
The khachapuri (£7), alas, were again of the cheesy pitta bread style I'd tried in Baltic, if a lot nicer. (This did make me wonder whether there is a Georgian style and another non-Georgian style?) The accompanying pot of lobio was a moreish mix of chopped up kidney beans, garlic, walnuts and lemon juice.
Of the mains, deruni (£8) featured two potato pancakes, filled with nicely browned, buttery button mushrooms and herbs and served with a pot of sour cream.
The neck of lamb was delectably pink and tender -- though that probably rendered it not very authentically Eastern European. At £18 it was the joint second most expensive thing on the menu, which rather suggest the prices have come down somewhat since the place first opened. It was served in a very artistic arrangement with sides of rice, grilled aubergine and a tomato-y sauce.
We weren't exactly hungry after all that, but the desert menu was too tempting to resist. I had vareniki (£6), a surprisingly light version of these ravioli-styled dumplings filled with pleasantly sour cherries and served with more sour cream. (Vareniki are basically the same thing as pelmeni, only with vegetarian fillings rather than meat, which usually means either curd cheese or fruit.) I was very sad to discover I was too full to finish the rather generous serving.
The cherry cheese-cake (£6) was nice if not particularly unusual, while the poppy-seed cake (£7) came daintily encased in chocolate and accompanied by rum and raisin ice cream.
With two bottles of wine and service, the bill came just under £120 for three -- pretty decent value. I just hope they are making enough because on our Friday night visit the place was barely half full, with most tables speaking in Russian.
Conclusion: by a long way the best Eastern European restaurant I've been to in London.
Divo, 12 Waterloo Place, SW1Y 4AU; Tel. 0207 4841355; Tube: Picadilly; www.divo-restaurant.co.uk