Monday, 20 December 2010
Theo Randall at the Intercontinental, Park Lane
For a restaurant in the basement of a not very attractive building (the boxy Intercontinental), Theo Randall doesn't seem to be trying particularly hard to stand out. Around the back of Park Lane, past a windswept taxi rank and through double doors to a bare, echoey corridor, you finally arrive at the above. Hardly inviting, is it? Looks more like a corporate boardroom than the entrance to a fine dining restaurant, but fortunately the pleasant staff inside do their best with the less than cosy surroundings (think Bar Boulud, only not quite so characterful) and by the time we got around to ordering our hearts - not to mention our toes - had thawed somewhat.
It's a big menu, with just about enough variety to satisfy most dietary requirements. Beef carpaccio, fried scallops, sage and ricotta ravioli, sea bass with potatoes, all hearty and rustic and fine, but even at this stage, I was worried. It all seemed very... if not dull - that would probably be unfair - but uninspiring. There were very few unusual ingredients, save a bit of lobster or white truffle, or exciting sounding dishes - in fact, it would be a stretch to describe anything on this menu at all as unique in London. The only eyebrow-raising thing, in fact, were the prices - £18 for said scallops as a starter, £12 for the vegetarian ravioli, £30 for the sea bass; I realise that location plays a part on the mark-ups and you can't serve anything too wacky to a 5* hotel crowd, but I couldn't help feeling underwhelmed. And that was even before the food arrived.
Against expectations, my calamari in padella were actually a pretty generous portion - so generous, in fact, I was worried I was filling up too quickly and left half of them. They were decent enough - cooked correctly, nicely seasoned with the salty anchovy and chilli, not much to complain about on that front, and the presentation made sense in the context of rustic Italian food if not really in the context of a Park Lane hotel restaurant. Nice, though.
We had a portion of the veal cappelletti split between two, in a budget-minded attempt to sample as much variety as possible. I'm afraid we detected very little of the veal and pancetta filling, and what was there was rather bland, and although the flavour of the pasta itself was good - eggy, obviously fresh, and seasoned well - it was rolled quite thickly and seemed rather clumsy. Contrast, for example, with these wonderful ravioli from Trullo, altogether more balanced, glossily addictive and about half the price.
Marinated, wood roasted pigeon with pancetta is the kind of thing I will always order when I see it on a menu. I love pigeon, and this example didn't disappoint at all, being gamey and bloody and amazingly plump - in fact it was probably the biggest pigeon I've ever seen in my life, almost the size of a small chicken. I liked this dish, from the crispy fried pancetta to the bitter radicchio, and the mixture of textures and flavours were very good indeed, but then you'd hope so for £30. The pigeon and pancetta at Polpetto is £7. Just saying.
And talking of Polpetto, here we have our problem in a nutshell. Perhaps four years ago when it opened (my how time flies), Theo Randall would have been one of the few places serving good Italian fare in the centre of London. Perhaps paying slightly more to go here for your beef carpaccio or veal chop would have been preferable to risking the local Mamma Mia or (shudder) Spaghetti House and it all would have made more sense - certainly, the rave reviews I read in those early days have stuck with me and it's a shame it's taken me this long to visit. But I can't help that right now, in 2010, although perfectly decent, Theo Randall is playing second fiddle to Polpo/Polpetto, Zucca, Trullo and (though I'm yet to visit myself) Tinello, and the fact is there is better food out there, and for less. Now, more than ever, a good restaurant experience is made by the perception of value, and at £156 for two (admittedly including a £39 wine but there wasn't much on the list under £35) for a decent but hardly stunning meal, I really can't describe this as such. Other than the hefty prices, Theo Randall at the Intercontinental aren't doing much wrong, it's just a shame for them that, thanks to the efforts of a handful of exciting new Italian restaurants across the capital, the rules of the game have changed.