A monumental triumph of hype over experience? – we visit the Fitzrovia restaurant where you can’t generally get a table until 2013… and totally fail to understand the excitement.
s we write, we have in front of us a bill, for two, for £162.55, which included a bottle of basic wine, and two cups of coffee. In this case, a cause for celebration, you might think? Thanks to a last-minute availability, advertised on Twitter, we had finally got a table at the industrial-style Fitzrovia restaurant which has been hailed as a real game-changer of the 21st century. Said who? An authority no less august than Fay Maschler at the Evening Standard.
And it wasn’t just Fay. The ballyhoo has been without parallel. All the major national newspaper critics, more or less, have given the place pretty much top marks. The hype even seems to have engulfed the people who take part in our annual survey. Booking stretches out well into 2013.
Well, what we actually feel, as we contemplate that bill, is something rather closer to anger. Perhaps it was because the credit card machine had – for perfectly pleasant, but fairly rudimentary, service – invited us to add a gratuity on top of the 12.5% service charge? Perhaps it was because, at the beginning of our meal, we’d actually had to ask to have a wonky table corrected, as if in a cheap café? But, essentially, it was the bare-faced cheek of demanding so much money for a meal which was so grossly uninspired, unexciting and unsatisfactory. In this town, for £80, you can still have a good lunch. This was not one such.
So what’s to praise? Well the bread wasn’t bad (archly presented in a paper bag as it was), and the starter of pea mousse with sorbet was genuinely exciting: as good to eat as it was to look at, it set an optimistic starting note. Later on in the meal, a coddled egg with mushrooms – prettily presented and tasty, but ultimately an egg – was pretty good too.
Otherwise, what? Almost everything was just a total non-event: our lunch was never interrupted by a single ‘ooh’ or a single ‘ah’, just the occasional bemused “so what?” Tomato in tomato essence - pretty enough, pleasant enough. Halibut with coastal herbs - it drove Ms Maschler to heights of delirium, but we could hardly taste anything. Iberico ham with nutty sludge - nasty, dry, boring, and seemingly so innocent of last minute preparation you could have taken it on a picnic.
And so the tedium went on. Peach in peach juice - not nearly sweet or tasty enough even to register. And why is that so clever? And – pièce de résistance – custard tart. This, we kid you not, was a banal tart filled with cream (like out of a squirty can), in which lurked a sliver of banana. A game-changer? That’s barely a finale to a cheap dinner party. As the pay-off at the end of a £54 menu, it just beggared belief.
How to square our experience with what 'everyone says’? Looking for comfort that we are not gone stark staring certifiably BONKERS, we desperately looked around the web for comfort. Turns out the Critical Couple had the same meal we did, more or less, and liked it not very much more. Ditto the 'ingredient-led’, analytical Andy Hayler. And the ‘vox’ pops at the end of both their pieces are even more pointed.
But it turns out that the truth, as we see it, already existed closer to home. We discovered our meal was pretty much the same as one of our staff had just after the restaurant opened, and by which – she now tells us – she was similarly unimpressed. So, it seems, London’s game-changing restaurant is so creative that it’s today churning out broadly the same wacky, but ultimately dull, menu it was three months ago?
We’ve now been checking out London’s restaurants – 'professionally’ that is – for nearly a quarter of a century. Never – in that entire period – have we ever had a keener feeling of being invited to admire ‘the emperor’s new clothes’. And at what cost!