Monday, 5 July 2010
Believe it or not, this is my first ever soft opening. Traditionally, through a combination of ignorance and sheer laziness, I was never the first person to hear about new restaurants, and was quite happy to leave that expensive and often painful job to those with thicker skins - and wallets - than my own. That usually meant Dos Hermanos, with their encyclopaedic knowledge of the restaurant trade and endless capacity for disappointment, got there first, which was fine by me. Good luck to 'em. They did it so we didn't have to.
But now, thanks mainly to the obsessive hive-mind of Twitter, new restaurants are flagged-up, scouted out and thoroughly deconstructed weeks before paying customers are allowed through the doors, meaning mere mortals like myself have a chance to slate a restaurant in its opening week. If that sounds unfair, then I refer you to this bit of text stamped in red at the top of the menu at Redhook - "You're one of the first in here and so it's 10% off your bill while we're still making a few mistakes. Please don't be too tough on us to start off with; unless we're really bad in which case, go mental." And what kind of food blogger would I be if I turned down an invitation like that?
The problems with Redhook - for they are many - began even before I'd sat down. A pleasant, if functional, standard Farringdon/Clerkenwell style bar area ends abruptly with a formal white-tablecloths-and-silver-cutlery dining space, with far too many impractically tiny tables squeezed in way too close to each other. Fortunately, as we were eating fairly early and the room remained empty for the duration of our mercifully brief meal, this wasn't too much of an issue, but I dread to think how many seafood platters would have met a messy end as diners attempted to extract themselves to visit the loo had it been at capacity.
I started with a Grey Goose martini (pretty good actually - at least the bar staff know what they're doing) and shared a "West London seafood platter" between the two of us. On the menu it's listed as £36 per person, but our waiter suggested we share it because "it's too big for one". So if the seafood platter is too big for one, why not either halve it in size or just list it as "£36 for two"? It's a menu conceit that I've seen in other seafood restaurants in London (namely Scott's) but I still find it bizarre.
Bits of it were OK. I liked the nice fresh rock oysters and the sweet Alaskan King Crab's leg. The lobster was nice and plump (ie. had not been overcooked) and the inclusion of razor clams and whelks at least shows a certain level of ambition, even if neither of these things were particularly pleasant to eat - they were under-seasoned or needed some sort of dressing. But is it asking too much to expect a large black waste pipe to be removed from a giant prawn in a plate of food costing (usually) £36? Or for a "citrus caviar" to taste of citrus? Or for any of it to be seasoned correctly, if at all? At least in Scott's, paying a similar price, you feel like you're getting your money's worth.
If the "surf" was disappointing, then the "turf" was a complete disaster. This poor, sad piece of meat had been slowly tortured to cooked-through, leathery grey. It had also been seasoned too early, so the surface of the flesh cracked and split like a dry mud bed. Had we the luxury of time we would have sent it back, but in the end settled for telling the (very apologetic) waiter, who took a couple of glasses of wine off the bill. As if the leathery steak wasn't bad enough, it was presented with a chunk of marrow bone which was - ironically - completely horribly red raw inside. I'm not sure if eating raw bone marrow is even safe - it's certainly not tasty - and so that was left too. Oh and the peppercorn sauce was thin and insipid. And the watercress wasn't seasoned or dressed at all. Yes, I think that's everything. Oh - the fries were OK.
Now, I know what you're going to say. "It's opening week! They're allowed to make mistakes." Well yes they are. But these were not niggles in service (which was pretty good actually) or simply timing or equipment issues. A steak so pallid and tough had clearly been nowhere near a proper hot charcoal grill, and so I casually enquired after the famous Josper that I had been told Redhook were using. "Oh it's not working properly, it's too hot". Too hot? Hmm. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt, and perhaps the kitchen needs further training on how to use the Josper. But to send out such a badly cooked steak casts doubt on whether they would have known how to cook a steak even if their grill was behaving itself, and anyone who considers "well done" and "medium rare" to be interchangeable instructions shouldn't be allowed anywhere near a kitchen.
Fighting off accusations over the years of unfairly panning restaurants in their opening week, the Dos Hermanos brothers have always responded that you can tell very early on whether a kitchen has the capacity to improve from a solid if flawed start, or whether the problems are so entrenched that things are never going to be worth paying full price for. Yes their charcoal grill may have been "broken" but even so, only the most rudderless of kitchens would have happily sent out a piece of meat so appalling. So it is not the cramped seating or the tiny tables or the relatively high prices that makes Redhook a bad steak restaurant. It is simply the fact that they can't cook steak.