Wednesday, 10 December 2008
Andaman, St James
There was very little sign of Credit Crunch Britain from inside the sleek, clubby bar at Andaman in St. James. Captains of industry flirted over champagne with suspiciously young Eastern European girls, and a multitude of staff with flamboyant Gallic accents circled the room, topping up glasses and nibbles. The scene was set, or so I thought, for a delicious evening of pampered escapism and a chance to try the food in one of London's newest and most exciting haute cuisine restaurants. I began with a martini.
Seemingly eager to impress, the barman rattled off a list of gins I could choose for my drink and whether I wanted an olive or a twist. These were good questions, and I was happy to answer them - most bars I'm lucky if I even get "gin or vodka?". But then all my illusions were shattered as he chose a warm martini glass from under the counter and a room-temperature bottle of gin from the shelf. The liquid was warm almost as soon as it was placed in front of me - not the kind of thing you'd expect from a top London hotel bar. Fortunately the evening improved slightly from then on.
Things started falling into place once we were seated at the impossibly tiny restaurant at the end of the bar. Despite a rather obvious gulf between the prosaic a la carte and the much more interesting tasting menu, we didn't have time for a full evening of food so ordered a starter and a main course. First to arrive, however, was a little wooden block of amuse - a shot glass full of gorgeous warm artichoke velouté (topped pointlessly with a hoop of smoked salmon with a straw through the middle) and a tiny delicate cone of cauliflower mousse. It was suspiciously close to the amuse served at the Square, but I didn't care one bit because they were both lovely - really, really lovely.
Starter proper was a "chartreuse" (a kind of terrine, according to Google) of dressed crab meat. Fresh crab sat on top of a disc of the green vegetable terrine, avocado being the main ingredient, alongside two stripes of light carrot sauce and, in one of Andaman's few concessions to texture and modern cooking methods, a clever little dollop of green vegetable "caviar". It was nothing if not fresh, competent and visually appealing cooking, if hardly enough to set Michelin pulses racing, but then at £12.50 it was actually pretty good value as well. So I was sated if not overly impressed.
My main course was a generous and professionally-cooked chunk of veal sat alongside what were described as "seasonal" vegetables but contained another asparagus shoot (note to Andaman: Green asparagus can generally only be described as "in season" around springtime). The veal jus was rich and silky, the vegetables cooked extremely well and the meat itself was as you'd expect veal to taste - rather characterless but juicy and pleasant. It was another solid dish, enjoyable but rather corporate.
For what would have been our pre-dessert had we had time for a dessert, the wooden presentation block returned, this time holding a little cone of delightfully zesty raspberry mousse (there's that seasonality again) alongside a nut-covered bite-size block of ice-cream. These were, again, really excellent and brought pangs of regret that we hadn't had time for the full tasting menu. Perhaps Andaman's cooking style works better on these petit plats than when charged with more substantial dishes - others certainly have had good things to say about the Full Monty - but I shouldn't really be making excuses for a place like this.
I don't want anyone to think I was disappointed or even underwhelmed with my meal at Andaman. In the context of some of the dross that passes for restaurant food in the capital, it's very good, with a potential to be excellent. But for a spot in an exclusive hotel gunning for (I'm led to believe) two Michelin stars from the get-go, I was preparing myself to be overwhelmed. And in the end I was just, kind of, "whelmed". It was nice, and not too wallet-blisteringly expensive, and we had a lovely evening. But if they think they can compete with the Square or Foliage based on this evening's performance, they have another thing coming.