A relaunch of a spacious St James’s business-restaurant of long standing, where the cuisine has now taken on a decidedly American twist; on our lunchtime visit, however, the whole experience seemed surprisingly devoid of character, in spite of the best efforts of the charming staff.
We were rather excited to go back to the Avenue, the large and airy St James’s restaurant whose history nicely encapsulates the history of the business over the past two decades. (You can read all about that here.) A D&D Group property in recent years, it has relaunched with a new explicitly American vibe, and an English chef (whom we recently interviewed here) with some impressive US experience.
They’ve spent a lot of money on adding accents and interest to this big white chamber, which itself seemed so remarkable in those far-off days when the restaurant made its début. The interior is now somewhat softened, but if you sit in the wrong place – as we did – it can still feel a bit of a barn. Fortunately service, which is friendly and on-the-ball, adds a lot of warmth to the experience.
The food, though, left us mystified. The Avenue may never have been on anyone’s top culinary highs list, but it’s generally been pretty competent over the years, which is part of the reason this has long been a default business lunch rendezvous in this pricey part of town.
On our last visit here, a few years ago, we’d enjoyed the lunchtime fish and chips, so we thought it would be interesting to compare and contrast (not least as that humble dish is, in our view, a restaurant test par excellence). Mistake: the cod (itself nicely cooked) was entombed rather than battered, and the chips that came with it were almost totally without any real character. Ditto the very creamy celeriac soup (with sauerkraut) before and the brownie afterwards.
Indeed, this lack of character turned out to be the almost invariable signature of a meal where everything read better than it tasted, not just for us, but for our guest too. Even his steak and eggs, he said, were not cooked as he’d ordered. Just problems settling in? Given the past standards here, and the chef’s very decent background, let’s hope!