In recent times, the site of the restaurant we review today has been both an Est! Est! Est! and a Caffé Uno. Not promising for a place that’s set its sights on the ‘fine dining’ market, you might think. For reasons that are hard to pin down, history has demonstrated that it’s remarkably difficult to establish gastronomic credibility for any restaurant that’s too obviously visible to hoi polloi.
If you swallow your doubts, though, and cross the threshold, what hits you first? In our case, ‘Downtown’. Well, it may have been a big hit for Petula back in 1965, but – even in an ironic way – it’s not very new-century-fine-dining. Ditto the interior, which the unkind might say is a bit dolled-up ’90s-high-street.
But what about the menu? Initially it seemed a real puzzle and rather anonymous, to the extent that we assumed that Mr Ribband – a name previously unknown to us – must have been cooking up a storm in Chelmsford (or wherever) before finally picking up the courage to come to town.
We subsequently discovered that he’s been cooking in a hotel, and a Mayfair one at that. Once you know this, the cuisine – with pretty but rather tortured presentation on an array of oddly-shaped glass plates – slips all too easily into the category of ‘style over substance’.
Take one example of total over-engineering: the humble panna cotta. This potentially delightful and – ideally – quivering little pud’ had been made solid (too much gelatine?), served in a large cocktail glass, and given a hard chocolate hat. Three bad ideas in one simple pudding!
Escoffier – the father of modern restaurant cookery – is best remembered in the trade for one saying: ‘faites simple’. The KISS principle – as we might call in nowadays – is one Mr Ribband would do well to remember.