Near Piccadilly Circus, a vast subterranean space re-created by the owners of the Wolseley as an authentic Gallic brasserie on a huge scale; value is quite reasonable, but we are not convinced the formula really ‘works’.
Many regular visitors to Paris will have their own favourite brasserie – a sort of home-from-home in the City of Light. Reliable, full of character, comforting, not too grand, not too pricey, (relatively) democratic’ – this list of the concept’s virtues is almost endless.
It really is a hard act to imitate, but if anyone could pull it off, the ‘Ivy boys’ (as they were once known), Christopher Corbin and Jeremy King, are the people to do it. Their Wolseley, though billed as mitteleuropean in inspiration, is perhaps – spiritually speaking – the closest thing London has to your grander sort of Parisian brasserie.
It is no coincidence that the Wolseley occupies a building which has more than hint of the Belle Epoque about it. Not so the home of their latest, and most audacious project yet, Brasserie Zédel – a magnificently restored marbled (basement) room on a scale hardly ever seen in London.
And here the problems start. It’s just ‘wrong’. Brasseries are Belle Epoque-to-Thirties, and the inherited style of this room is very definitely neo-classical. It doesn’t help that the fussy capitals of the columns have been gilded to within an inch of their lives, and then spot-lit: this contributes to an overall impression somewhat akin to the Great Hall of the People, recently made over by the best interior designer in Ruritania.
That’s not, we suspect, the aim. They’ve spent an absolute fortune on, for example, really beautiful ’30s-style light fittings. But these just don’t gel with the fixed elements of the room. And that matters. Your classic brasserie is an all-of-a-period whole-greater-than-sum-of-parts – what the Germans more catchily call a Gesamtkunstwerk – and this isn’t.
There are other things which jar, too. Although the tablecloths are paper – homage, it seems, to Chartier, the famously cheap, jam-packed workmen’s dining hall in the 2ème – the waiters here decrumb before pudding. Well, chaps, which is it? Is this a democratic dining hall à la Chartier (where they write your order straight on to the ‘cloth’), or are you aiming to offer a downscale version of dinner at the Crillon? This place just doesn’t seem to know where it really stands.
In defence of the establishment – which, we should say, we were really hoping was going to become our new central London stand-by – it should be noted that prices are pretty reasonable. Or at least intermittently so – an all-in menu for £20, including coffee and a glass of wine, is clearly a useful thing to have, a few yards from Piccadilly Circus.
Twelve pounds for half a dozen fairly small oysters is not, however, a special bargain. And here again, there’s something not quite right. There’s a correct way for a Parisian brasserie to serve oysters (on a stand). Any other ways is just wrong.
Against which it must be said that some of the food is good. A steak, albeit quite a small one, came very nicely cooked, and the chips were not bad either. A marmite de poissons was tasty, but – perhaps of necessity – felt very portion-controlled. A pâtisserie item, which seemed rather a bargain for pudding, just tasted a bit cheap.
Can these problems all be cured when the settling-in is done? We do fear the problem is intrinsic: we’re not sure that there’s a place in the market for a large establishment that’s too grand to be truly cheap, and too cheap to be truly grand.
We do hope, though, that we’re wrong. There’s so much care (and money) evidently gone in to this that it gives us no pleasure to record our early-days view that this is a really brave concept which doesn’t – in the final analysis – really quite work.