Thursday, 2 September 2010

Best Value in London?

Hands up.  I admit I have gone against my guiding tenet and partaken of a restaurant within the M25, indeed within the very heart of Old London Town, but it was a momentary blip on my otherwise stain-free character and I promise to try and curb any future occurrences. What prompted this abhorrent behaviour? I hear you ask. I’m afraid the temptations of spare time, proximity, and an early evening offer were just too strong to resist and so it was that Mrs. C and I set off for the Great Metropolis one recent Saturday afternoon.

Not normally being one to indulge in spontaneity, I was concerned when Mrs. C. casually remarked on the Wednesday that we had nothing planned for the coming weekend. I was strangely aware of a voice suggesting a visit to London and booking a deal at a restaurant. It was a couple of minutes before I realised that voice was mine! The damage had been done, the seed sown, the expectation set. There was no way back. Determined to make the best of my rash statement, I immediately got onto the interweb and started trawling through toptable to see what was available, bearing in mind Mrs. C’s penchant for shopping. One restaurant stood out as ticking all the boxes and so a booking was made for ‘Theo Randall at the Intercontinental Hotel’.

This left me in a quandary. Casual afternoon wear for traipsing around the shops and more formal wear for the evening – what cravat to wear? Having plumped for a slightly audacious houndstooth check jacket, I felt a slightly muted olive green cravat would set the right tone, neatly combining Harrods’ and the Italian influence of Theo Randall’s food. I just hope everyone appreciated the effort I had made.

The journey from our country bolt-hole to London was uneventful and mercifully swift and we emerged into the swathe of tourists at South Kensington mid afternoon. This allowed for a comfortable stroll around Harrods Food Halls and kitchen appliances (I was particularly taken with a pair of Alessi tea infusers) before retiring to a nearby hostelry for sustenance. Unfortunately Mrs. C’s eagle eyes spotted that the Harrods Christmas department was open (in mid August!) and so a tortuous 45 minutes was spent in a fairy tale world with relentless tinkley, joyous, music in the background. Two observations – Christmas tat is still tat, even if you do pay a ridiculous amount for it, and what effect will four months of inexorable ‘Christmas cheer’ have on the poor staff? I escaped with only a minor dent in my wallet and we retired to the Bunch of Grapes for a pre-dinner snifter. The twenty minute stroll back to the Intercontinental Hotel was mercifully dry but made tortuous by the milling masses of pint-sized touriists (it was like I had been transported to Munchkin Land) who would suddenly stop for no apparent reason other than to hinder my progress. Having negotiated the underpasses at Hyde Park Corner (complete with extremely loud penny whistle playing busker - how soothing!) we eventually found the entrance to the hotel.

Any concerns about not being able to find the restaurant were dismissed by the illuminated sign over the doorway just inside the foyer. 'Theo Randall' it proclaimed and so we entered. Having been greeted warmly we were shown to our table. The restaurant area is spacious, decorated in muted colours with the odd splash of colour provided by modern artworks or, as was the case in our area, by pieces of Venetian glass. The lighting was primarily by small spotlights but the overall effect was fairly satisfactory and the use of floral arrangements, including orchids on all the tables, softened the corners a bit. The problem here is that whatever you do to a large rectangular room with low ceilings and 'institutional' air conditioning, it will always remain exactly that and the ambience was spoiled by the acoustics. Still, a good effort given the raw ingredients!

The booking through toptable was for the early supper menu, including a glass of prosecco which was offered to us as the menus arrived, along with water (chilled tap). Having perused the menu on-line, I thought I was ready to order but the complementary bruschetta and foccacia breads diverted my thought processes so we had to ask the very obliging waitress for more time. Eventually decisions were made, and our order was placed.

We ordered a couple of glasses of wine, a Chilean Merlot for myself and a French Sauvignon Blanc 'for the lady' both of which were priced significantly higher than on the website. In discussion with the sommelier he suggested that the web-site was in need of updating but they hadn't got around to it as yet. A bit sloppy that but the only real fault we could find so only a minor quibble really.  The wines turned out to be very good and wholly met our expectations.

To start, I order the smoked eel with beetroots, dandellion, and fresh horseradish. Nicely presented, the generous helping of lightly smoked eel was delicious with red and yellow beets and creamed horseradish with just enough bite to counteract the oily fish. The only disappointment was the lack of dandelion in the salad but the rocket provided enough peppery contrast to ensure the dish was most enjoyable, Mrs. C. chose Bresaola which, again, was very generous in size and the ingredients spot on; beautifully cured, moist beef and almost crystalline parmesan. Of the two plates, I think I chose the better even though I am a huge fan of beef. Having done the obligatory swapping of fork-fulls, I found the eel dish just that bit more interesting, both in textures and flavours.

On to the Secondi. It was this course that was causing the delay in ordering as it is an unspoken rule that we cannot both order the same menu items – what would be the point of swapping fork-fulls? On this occasion we decided to ignore yet another rule and we both chose the roasted guinea fowl stuffed with prosciutto, marscarpone and thyme with Swiss chard, tomatoes and pagnotta bruschetta. A very wise choice as it turned out, and just out of sheer devilment I also ordered a side of zucchini fritti. The guinea fowl was cooked perfectly with the marscarpone stuffing placed under the skin aiding the moistness of the breast and the juices caught by the bruschetta were absolutely to die for. Again very generous helpings, especially the crisp battered courgettes, but I managed to soldier through and eat all my helping and a couple of pieces from Mrs C. (just to help her out!)
On to the Dolci and quite a momentous event as Mrs. C. normally shuns such things but she chose the Tiramisu whilst I fancied something a bit more palate cleansing, so opted for the Amalfi Lemon Tart. The Tiramisu was light, creamy, and subtle but not a 'real' Tiramisu (I will eloborate further in another blog) and seemed to hit the spot. The lemon tart was glorious with perfect pastry and cheek suckingly sharp filling that left you in no doubt as to the main flavouring. Again both dishes provided an ample demonstration of the levels of skill being shown within the kitchen.

As we were both in danger of following Mr Creosote's example, we declined coffee but petit fours appeared anyway. In the interests of science I took the risk and sampled the bitter chocolate truffles and the pistachio biscotti, and in the absence of any explosion had a couple more. A nice touch and very toothsome, although it did mean we had to have a lengthy walk before getting on the Tube!.

So, in Summary:

Food style – Modern Italian, unpretentious, robust flavours.
Drinks – the Prosecco certainly hit the spot, my Merlot was £11, the Sauvignon Blanc £9. Both wines were very good and we were continually topped up with tap water!
Décor – There is only so much you can do with a large rectangular space but overall a very pleasant space in which to spend a couple of hours.
Staff – Without exception, excellent. Everyone from the Greeter to the Maitre 'd were unfailingly pleasant, knowledgeable and apparently intent on ensuring all their guests had the best possible experience.
Quality against Cost score – If you will forgive the vulgarity, absolutely stonking! Excellent food for an unbelievable price. I would happily eat there every week, if only it was outside the M25!  Overall cost £80 including 12.5% service.
Cravat Rating – Definitely achieves 'The Best' rating.

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