Thursday, 2 October 2008
I have, I will admit, not been kind to the Lanesborough in the past. I had a very uncomfortable couple of hours one Saturday afternoon in the Library Bar, being ignored by waiters and being served overpriced mediocre martinis, and it was when I noticed that all the books in the "library" were fake that I decided that this probably wasn't the bar for me. But the fake books were almost a metaphor for the whole building - the Lanesborough is a brand-new London hotel masquerading as a grand-old London hotel (it only opened in 1990) and has created this atmosphere of stately longevity entirely out of nothing. Which is an achievement of sorts, I suppose.
There used to be a restaurant in the Lanesborough called The Conservatory, which many people thought was pretty nice even though it was a bit like eating in The Crystal Maze's Tropical Zone. The plants and flourishes have gone, replaced by cool beige carpets and chintzy sofas, and the new head chef is a chap called Nick Bell, who despite being as British as British can be is cooking "simple, regional, Italian food" (his words) amid the starched tablecloths and sommeliers.
First, the good. The room is grand and airy if only very slightly corporate-diner, and the staff are very, very good at what they do. We never had to ask for anything, they moved at just the right pace and our tapwaters were diligently refilled. My starter of "Lonza" ham (I had to ask) with onions and endive was perfectly good - the sharp endives balanced with the sweet pickled onions but allowing the smooth texture of the ham to show through. And a companion's "Cardoon" soup (a type of artichoke apparently) was declared "very nice", and came with a pesto made from thistle!
Mains were similarly tasty. I had a beautifully cooked piece of salmon with a lovely crispy skin, on top of a smooth, rich balsamic sauce. A great combination of textures and flavours that never overpowered the salmon. "Cotcechino" (it looked like a big meatball made from cured pork) was a robust plate of food and also disappeared without complaints. Desserts were less impressive - mine was a very simple orange sorbet and an iced chocolate sponge was only OK - but they didn't detract from what was in general an honest and flavoursome lunch. So, and I'm sure you've already skimmed down to the bottom of the page to check the score, why only 6/10?
Well, I blame the chef. Not because he can't cook, but because he himself admitted he's serving "simple, regional, Italian food". And if I want "simple, regional, Italian food" I won't go to a 5-star London hotel with white tablecloths, fish knives and more staff than customers. If I want "simple, regional, Italian food" I won't want to pay through the nose for it the most expensive city on earth. In short, if I want "simple, regional, Italian food" I will go to Italy. A quick search on Ryanair brings up a return to Rome (Ciampino) for the grand total (including taxes) of £44.01, just about the price I paid for my lunch at Apsley's. Nick Bell's dishes were authentic and tasty and I could recommend them wholeheartedly if they were not lost amidst the columns and shirt-tails of the Lanesborough - it just didn't sit right.
If Apsley's had gone down the Zafferano route of serving a haute-cuisine Italian-influenced menu, still sourcing the finest Italian produce but making the dishes look like they're worth the china they're served on, then that would have made sense. But the food at Apsley's doesn't step up to the mark demanded of a top London hotel restaurant and ultimately that is what people are shelling out for. I've had people try to convince me that it's the atmosphere and style that your money gets you at hotel restaurants, and that food is secondary. Well, if you are impressed enough by superficialities that you can overlook average food then good luck to you, but if Claridge's (Gordon Ramsay), the Mandarian (Foliage) and the Dorchester (The Grill Room) can host world-class restaurants that feel like they belong in such fine surroundings then I don't see why the Lanesborough can't.