Harden's survey result
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This impressive-looking Covent Garden basement offers a “good-value pre-theatre set menu”, and its film-and-dinner deals attract “appreciative regulars”; otherwise, however, feedback is modest in volume, and rather lacklustre.
On the fringe of Covent Garden, a smart basement restaurant whose prices and style make it a 'natural' for business; on our visit soon after the summer-2007 revamp, the food veered - to an unusual extent - from outstanding to very ordinary.
After a decade in business, Axis - the restaurant below the highly-regarded One Aldwych hotel - has seemed a bit long-in-the-tooth of late. Rightly, the management closed it in mid-2007 for a revamp. Wrongly, perhaps, it's emerged more tinkered-with than revolutionised.
The main decorative change is plain odd. The staff told us that the Vorticist-style mural which still dominates the room was always a love-it-or-hate-it affair, but that owner Gordon Campbell Gray really likes it (as do we). In an effort to accommodate the 'hate-its', however, a forest of silvered tree-trunk-style pillars have now been installed in front of it, presumably to jazz it up, destroying a conception that was at least 'pure'. It is hard to see how this is a step forward.
In the light of the recent demise of Bank, however, there's certainly scope for some serious business dining in the area, so how does the place measure up on that score?
Service was already into an extremely impressive stride, although admittedly the dining room was sufficiently empty that any longeurs would have been hard to justify.
The menu - in the direct, pretty English style du jour - is certainly appropriate, but it's also (bar the lunch/pre-theatre option) priced at a level which leaves little scope for error.
The meal started so well. The bread was filling but more-ish. Of the starters, a smoked eel salad was beautifully put together and dressed, and a mussel soup necessitated breaks in the conversation to say 'hey, this is really good'.
Unfortunately, though, it's hard not to judge a meal on its main dishes, and the next course scored two out of three duds. A pork chop (from the cheapo menu) was dull beyond belief, and a confidently un-wordily described pork pie a step backwards from those found on supermarket shelves. The only redemption came in an unsual-sounding chicken with cottage pie. It wasn't actually at all unusual - chicken + cottage pie - but the bird in particular had good depth of flavour, and the cottage pie element stodged up the dish nicely.
Puddings were good - a subtle, tea-flavoured blancmange in particular - but not so good as to obliterate the impression from the main course. And petits fours were outstanding, some of the best' but again there were those dull main dishes.
So oddly diverse was our experience this is clearly not a surefire recommendation. But likewise it's hard to say 'stay away'.
1 Aldwych, London, WC2B 4RH
lunch noon - 2.45 pm, dinner 5.45 pm - 10.45 pm, Sat 11.30 pm
Last orders: 10.30 pm