Monday, 31 January 2011

Les Deux Salons

One of the most common assumptions about restaurant bloggers is that we'd all really like to be professional restaurant critics, and some, I don't doubt, would. I wouldn't, because I'd be crap at it; I don't have a critic's detachment, and it goes against my nature to actively look for the bad as well as the good. In blogging as in life, it is simply my nature that I always look for the positive. Be it people, situations, art, books or, in the present context, restaurants, I live by the ever-hopeful premise that in everything and everyone there is something inherently good; even Hitler loved his dog.

You'll appreciate then how hard it is for me that I really can't think of a single good word to say about Les Deux Salons, a sprawling all-day brasserie located just off the Strand. On paper it should be so good; owners Will Smith and Anthony Demetre are the chaps behind Michelin-starred Arbutus in Soho and Wild Honey in Mayfair, so it's certainly got pedigree. But based on my recent experience, for afternoon tea with fabulous fashion blogger Michael Ford, Les Deux Salons may prove to be the mutt of the litter.

Anyone who's been to Dean Street Townhouse - as I have just a couple of (dozen) times - will recognise the sort of dark wood, dark colours, brass fittings look that Les Deux Salons has gone for, both having been designed by the increasingly ubiquitous Martin Brudnizki. However, whereas from day one the Townhouse looked worn-in and welcoming, the room here - or the room we were in; there are of course deux - just looks like an off-the-shelf, generic brasserie, the paint too glossy, the 'aged' mirrors obviously brand new. It doesn't feel like any love's gone into the interior, nor does there seem to be much attention paid to what goes on within it; I noticed several wobbling tables, one of our teacups was stained and the dirty cloths on adjacent tables were allowed to remain in situ and in sight for far too long.

By far the worst offence however was the meal itself. It might seem unfair to judge a restaurant on something as incidental as afternoon tea rather than its a la carte offering, but my feeling is that if a restaurant is going to operate all day, then it should maintain its standards all day. Michael and I chose the Champagne Afternoon Tea at £25, consisting (as one would expect) of tea, finger sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and jam, a choice of cakes and a glass of Champagne. I say Champagne; what we were brought was certainly a sparkling wine, and quite possibly a demi-sec Champagne, but tasted suspiciously like Prosecco. Without it we would have paid £7.50 less, but even then I don't think we would have felt that we'd had value for money.

The finger sandwiches, of which there were half a dozen each, were the sorriest, dullest assortment I've ever seen. Michael's vegetarian selection was entirely cheese - the same cheese at that - while mine was barely more varied; so-so salmon, processed ham, all in very ordinary, very dry sliced bread. Neither of us finished our measly six fingers despite Michael's  having not eaten that day and my famously prodigious appetite. There was no sign of say, egg and cress, or cucumber, the kind of light, tasty fillings one expects, and usually gets, at afternoon tea.

Our scones were, in fairness, pretty good - that really is about the most enthusiasm I can muster  - but the cakes were dreadful. Chocolate cake, listed on the menu as 'moist', was so dense that the first - and last - forkful stuck in my throat. Quatre quarts, described uninspiringly by our waiter as 'like a dry cake', was like a dry cake. We didn't have the appetite or interest to try the carrot cake; for all I know it could have been the most amazing feat of bakery since Monsieur Carême invented the soufflé, but I doubt it. Our teas, from an unexciting but OK selection, were fine.

Service was...well service was alright, but not great. Our waiter - or at least, the waiter who we saw the most of  - was efficient enough but lacked warmth, and seemed to almost resent any questions or interaction over and above the bare minimum (Michael's request for vegetarian sandwiches for example was greeted with a look of such incredulity that a third-party observer might have thought we'd asked him to find us transport to the sun). When another waiter came to clear our table and I politely explained why more than half of our food remained untouched  - basically because it was dry, heavy stodge - he did thank me and say that he would 'tell the kitchen' but this didn't translate into any reduction on the bill which, with 12.5% service, came in at a hefty £28 each for mediocre food, average tea and ordinary possibly-not-even Champagne. The Woleseley it most certainly ain't.

All that aside, I did greatly enjoy the company; fortunately Michael was sufficiently laid back as to be able to laugh off the dreadfulness of it all and we enjoyed our couple of hours gossiping. If you're at all interested in fashion, or simply enjoy good writing and photography, then you could do a lot worse than subscribe to Michael's fabulous blog, Anastasia & Duck. But that, I'm afraid, is the only positive thing I can find to say about my experience of Les Deux Salons.

Les Deux Salons, 40-42 William IV Street, London WC2N 4DD Tel: 020 7420 2050
Les Deux Salons on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Bocca di Lupo, Soho

When I told friends that I was being taken for dinner at Bocca di Lupo, so many of them asked if it was a date that I actually started to question whether it was. Call me naïve, but it had never occurred to me that Philip, the handsome, single lawyer who I'd met at a party and who'd offered to take me out might have any motive ulterior to wanting the pleasure of my company. 

It would seem however that, in the couple of years since it opened on Archer Street - an unremarkable Soho back-alley - this smart, buzzing Italian has developed a reputation as much for being a popular and impressive date destination as for its exceptionally good food. On the strength of my (purely Platonic) experience, I can see why  - on both counts.

Bocca di Lupo's striking red brick frontage, with the name picked out in bold relief, has the look of having always been there despite being barely two years old. The restaurant behind it has the same feeling; it's a classy interior, with a long marble-topped bar over-looking an open kitchen and a small, smart dining room at the back done out in warm browns and creams. The overall appearance is of somewhere that could have opened twenty years or twenty minutes ago and always be contemporary. 

Bookings are taken for both the dining room and bar; our reservation was for the laid-back but lively latter. Notwithstanding the icy draught which blew past us every time the door was opened - which in a place this popular was quite often - it struck me as being the nicer space of the two and a perfect 'date place'; sitting back-to-back with your fellow patrons means sitting cosily knee-to-knee with your companion.

Chef Jacob Kenedy - yes, [sic], only one 'n' - has devised a clever, quite lengthy menu which explores the many regions of Italy, breaking dishes down into half a dozen categories and offering about as many choices under each. Almost all of these are available as small or large plates - perfect for romantic sharing or selfish solo consumption respectively - with the exception of Fritti, fried nibbles which are priced by the piece and Arrosti, a heavenly sounding selection of whole roast birds and fish. Even though I wasn't on a date, I decided to pretend that I was, and let the gentleman - an habitué
 of the restaurant - order for both of us.

To start off with Philip picked us a Piedmontese battuto - a simplified steak tartare  - f
rom the Raw & Cured section, a couple of mozzarella bocconcini from the Roman fritti and that day's special of grilled scallops. It was all wonderful, the battuto light and sophisticated, using just oil to flavour the freshest minced beef, the bocconcini crisply oil-free on the outside, oozing but just retaining some bite on the inside. The scallops however were the real stand-out dish; a good half-dozen whoppers, corals attached (this delighted me but made Philip squeamish; never mind - opposites attract) grilled with a knob of butter and a squeeze of lemon until just cooked through. Couldn't haven't been simpler, couldn't have been lovelier.

We followed this with a variety of small plates from the Pastas & Risottos; the waiter's eyes widened when Philip asked him to suggest four for us to try but my non-date was determined that I should experience as much of the menu as possible. When the food came, the reason for the waiter's reticence became apparent; each 'small' portion was of a size I would have happily accepted as a regular pasta course. 

Orrecchiette with red onion, tomato and 'nduja - a fiery, chilli-hot salame typical of Calabria but made by the restaurant - was my favourite for its salty, spicy punch, while Philip preferred the sounds-weird-but-it-works pumpkin and amaretti tortelli with butter and sage, the plump pasta parcels sprinkled with crushed amaretti biscuits. I'm not a fan of anything almondy but tried the dish out of curiosity, and found it a very interesting - and not at all untasty - combination of flavours and textures. A Treviso and Asiago risotto was accomplished if unexciting.

With no room left for any more savoury, we decided to share a dessert - how romantic - and were very happy with our choice of a brioche sandwich of pistachio, hazelnut and chestnut gelati. The gelati, all made by Bocca di Lupo's gelateria-cum-deli offspring Gelupo across the road, were beautiful - creamy, smooth and tasting abundantly of what they were supposed to,  something which seems to happen far less often than one would wish - and the sweet brioche layers made the dish feel like a dessert proper rather than just a bowl of posh ice-cream. More adventurous diners than we might want to try the Sanguinaccio - a 'sweet pat
é of pig's blood and chocolate'. Sounds yummy.

Philip being teetotal we drank only water, but in the name of research I took a look at the wine list and it's a good one. With the exception of Champagne it's all Italian and, like the menu, tours the whole country from thigh to heel, not forgetting the islands; a Sicilian Cavallina is one of several bottles available for well under £20. For anyone really wanting to impress their date or simply push the boat out there's also a 'Cellarkeeper's List' of rare and unusual bottles which reads like oenophile erotica. Service is deeply knowledgeable, admirably passionate and generally efficient, although blatant up-selling of extras introduced an unwelcome corporate note into the otherwise convivial proceedings.

As if his delightful company, erudite conversation and infectious joie de vivre weren't enough, Philip also showed himself to be the perfect gentleman by picking up the bill. Even without a drop of liquor it won't have been cheap; pricing is stiff, with small plates mostly around £8 but soaring higher for seafood and large plates easily averaging £18. I would guess that with service added Philip won't have got away with much change from £100 for our just-good-friends feast. I'd call that fairly good value for the consistently excellent quality, but it wouldn't hurt to have a few more accessibly-priced dishes for those on a budget as well as a date. This gripe aside, I left Bocca di Lupo full of affection for both the restaurant and my host and recommend it to you with a happy heart.

A note about the Duran Duran video which illustrates this post in place of the more usual exterior photo: the 'striking red brick frontage' described above was behind scaffolding on the night we visited, and in any case the battery on my phone died thus precluding the taking of any other photos. So in homage to the restaurant - it's name translates as 'The Wolf's Mouth' - I thought I'd treat you to 80s classic 'Hungry Like The Wolf'. Don't say I never do anything for you.

Bocca di Lupo, 12 Archer Street, London W1D 7BB Tel: 020 7734 2223

Bocca Di Lupo on Urbanspoon 

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