Until fairly recently, Covent Garden was something of a culinary wasteland, its restaurant scene not having kept up with an ever-improving retail landscape. Bar one or two decent places - Joe Allen, Clos Maggiore - options for eating out in WC2 were mostly limited to terrible tourist traps and what might charitably be called 'better chains'.
Then, within a couple of years, a slew of serious restaurants arrived - among them Opera Tavern, Mishkin's and Dishoom, to name just three - and suddenly Covent Garden became as much a destination for food as for fashion. With them came an influx of more discerning - or at least, more demanding - diners, faced with which the area's older businesses have had to adapt or die.
Tuttons, the landmark 'brasserie round the corner', has chosen the former, its owners throwing a presumably huge cheque at a new interior and revamped menu. The room's undeniably very nice to look at - the work of Russell Stage Studio, responsible for such recent beauties as Zetter Townhouse and The Balcon - and clearly cost a bomb, all heavy dark wood, chunky mirrors, shiny red banquettes and faux-alligator tabletops. Tuttons' menu reads impressively too, offering modern brasserie staples with a heavy emphasis on British produce - four counties are name-checked in the starters section alone.
It's a shame then that at least based on my recent visit with Anders, the menu is writing cheques that the food can't cash. A starter of 'Honey-rolled beef carpaccio with veal heart dumplings' had leapt at me off the page and wasn't at all bad, the carpaccio silky, the little offal dumplings rich and peppery, but if the 'honey-rolling' was meant to add a sweet counterpoint then it wasn't there.
Anders' Dorset crab, saltwater prawns and avocado was of unimpeachable freshness and flavour but suffered from poor presentation, the crustacea lying on forlorn iceberg lettuce and salad leaves that spoke of recent extraction from a bag.
Lacklustre leaves also served to spoil the look of my main course of Buckinghamshire veal wrapped in Parma ham (yes, saltimbocca); no-one wants to see a vast clump of slightly-past-its-prime watercress on their plate. Our waiter actually said, "I'm not going to ask how the veal is because it's amazing, right?" Well, wrong, I had to correct him to his evident disappointment; after a jaw-workout-tough first mouthful it improved in both texture and flavour but 'amazing' it was not. I couldn't detect any anchovy in the lemon and anchovy butter, but a fried duck egg on top and some wonderful crispy sage were nice touches.
Poor Anders' main course, a cauliflower, leek and Montgomery cheddar bake, was no more than fine; the kind of thing one could easily rustle up at home and disappointing for the only vegetarian main course available.
Plates sat for an age uncleared before we moved on to desserts and any hopes of a climactic high-note were to be in vain. Kentish raspberry cheesecake with biscuit crumb - that 'biscuit crumb' should have rung alarm bells - was an irritating deconstructed affair, a loose frothy quenelle of 'cheesecake' dropped amidst half a crumbled digestive biscuit, the whole drizzled in a cheap-tasting raspberry sauce. Anders's summer pudding trifle used some good fresh fruit but was otherwise unexciting.
My overall impression - gently rebutted by the duty manager whom I put it to - was that here was a menu that had been conceived with good intentions, by a clearly very passionate chef, but which was being delivered without his supervision by a kitchen that was cutting some corners and lacking finesse. Nothing we ate was actually bad, and some dishes - the crab, the veal after the first few mouthfuls - at least tasted very good. But with prices on a par with Dean Street Townhouse, which has clearly been looked to for inspiration both for decor and menu, the whole operation will have to work a lot harder if Tuttons is to establish itself as serious competition for the area's upstart newcomers.
Tuttons, 11/12 Russell Street, London WC2B 5HZ Tel: 0844 371 2550 http://www.tuttons.com
I was invited to review Tuttons.
Posted by +Hugh Wright