On a Kensington site that’s had a somewhat chequered history of late, a smart but somewhat subdued bistro offering food English dishes of very high quality, under the auspices of Square chef Philip Howard.
Philip Howard is one of those blameless chefs who beavers away doing what chefs are supposed to do – for younger readers, that’s cooking – year after year. It’s no particular surprise, then, that standards at his grand Mayfair restaurant, the Square, are a model of consistency. His has proved to be a nothing-to-scare-the-horses cuisine that has long made this one of the top destinations for grander business dining.
Now he’s decided to branch out, going into partnership with Rebecca Mascarhenas, best known as proprietress of the long-established Sonny’s in Barnes. Her efforts to make a go of the Kensington site she’s also owned for some time – once called Abingdon Road, and more recently Bistrot Eleven – never seem to have been crowned with great success.
Part of the problem is that these are premises which just don’t have zing. Though they are in a street long associated with restaurants (and one that leads into one of the most chichi Kensington backwaters), Abingdon Road has always struck us as rather a forlorn thoroughfare, and the recent establishments on this site have never managed to transcend their location.
The recent (fairly modest) make-over hasn’t really made much difference: objectively this is a perfectly comfortable dining room, but it is still rather lacking in spark. On our lunchtime visit, the service was one stage better than the décor – fine, perhaps even a bit better than that, but not really with enough ooomph to create what you might call a soul.
Perhaps, though, the cooking here will make it ‘third time lucky’ for Ms M. It’s certainly of a very high quality (and it’s already driving the foodie end of the Twitterati to heights of ecstasy). On our meal the bread was splendid (we’d suggest the sourdough), and an autumnal soup was as rich and as satisfying as you could hope for, and came – rather unusually – with a mini-kebab or two. We can’t remember precisely what they consisted of, but they certainly added interest! A duck leg from the set lunch menu was precisely cooked, the meat falling from the bone but not at all overcooked. A small but perfectly-formed pear financier (sponge pudding, not a chap who tears up £50 notes) was clearly the work of a master.
A guest was equally happy with his meal. His elegantly-plated ox-tongue – surely an oxmoron? – certainly looked like the sort of dish you’d fine in a much fancier sort of joint, and he expressed delight both with it and the rabbit terrine which preceded it. Coffee and chocolates were also excellent. Both the menu and the wine list are extensive and reasonably priced (and the latter offers a good choice by the 25cl carafe).
One very much senses here the inspiration of Arbutus, a seminal West End success of recent times. Kensington, however, is emphatically not Soho: only if the food here succeeds in attracting a dedicated – and hopefully animated – following does there seem any real hope of a breakthrough on the atmosphere front.