Tuesday, 2 August 2011
Before I go into the sordid details of just how much a meal for two people at Aspley's can cost, I should, in the interest of fairness, point out that they do a 3 course menu with a glass of fizz for £35, which for lunch in one of London's most prestigious hotels (the imposing, gleaming white Lanesborough on Hyde Park Corner) isn't bad. And taking one look at the scruffy individual shuffling through reception on Saturday, it was just this cheaper menu the staff even showed me at first, only bringing out the full a la carte when I specifically asked for it. I suppose I can't blame them for jumping to certain conclusions regarding my likelihood of getting all spendy, especially next to the well-groomed international kids and captains of industry that were my fellow diners on Saturday, but even so, it all made me feel a bit self conscious. If you're going to have a ludicrously expensive a la carte, at least go through the motions of showing the damn thing to me first - if I then freak out and settle for the bridge and tunnel menu at least that's my choice. "I'll show them," I thought as the weighty, leather-bound Menu Prestige was finally produced. "How dare they assume I'm too cheap to spend £30 on a starter." Making a mental note to keep hold of the itemised menu to invoice London Confidential, I dove right in.
While our ordered courses were prepared we were treated to a miniature veal burger, which looked amusing enough but tasted only OK; the veal was warm and inoffensive but the bun was a bit dry. This was strange considering the stunning quality of the house bread, particularly a bouncy, rich focaccia and a soft brown bread with delicate crust straight out of the oven. The house olive oil is also worth mentioning, grassy and smooth and clearly of very high quality.
"It's kind of like sushi", our waitress modestly replied when I asked her what the Fish "Crudo" starter was. I don't quite know what I expected, but something approaching the stunning raw seafood selection at Bocca di Lupo would have sufficed, only perhaps a bit tarted up to justify the £30 price tag. What arrived was various types of fish and seafood delicately placed in the middle of nine individual dishes, which swamped our quite big table and made me feel even more like Mr Creosote than I already did. By and large they were good; it's impossible to remember every detail but I particularly enjoyed a tuna and grapefruit combo and a couple of dainty rolls of sea bass. Scallops weren't so successful - rather slimy and tasteless - and I don't think a big fat oyster needed any messing about with, just serve it straight up and try and keep more of the salty juices in please, but it was certainly a spectacular way to start the meal. Unfortunately my friend didn't fare so well with her langoustines; even a fairly lavish plate of food would have looked a bit miserly next to my own tasting-menu-in-a-course, but it wasn't so much the appearance as the fact that the langoustines themselves were overcooked - a fairly unforgivable error for such a smart and expensive restaurant.
Service tripped up a bit by the time we got to the Primi, as after a fairly lengthy wait (not made any easier by nobody refilling our empty glasses; listen, restaurants of London - if you insist of keeping my white wine in an ice bucket out of sight then fine, but you'd better keep a bloody good watch on my glass) they brought out one dish we didn't order. The unordered monkfish spaghetti (they let us keep it at no extra charge) was actually very good, a powerful seafood stock helping create a lovely rich flavour and the chunks of fish were tender and well seasoned, but my friend's "pea soup with lobster" wasn't so enjoyable - the "soup" was bland and way too thick, and the plate, scattered with quinoa for reasons known only to Apsleys, looked ugly. When it finally did arrive 10 minutes or so later, though, the lobster tagliolini was genuinely superb, containing generous chunks of lobster and livened by fresh pesto and summer vegetables; it was a real delight.
It was an uneven meal up to this point, though, and one that didn't much improve with the arrival of the Secondi. My pigeon was fine I suppose, tender if rather tasteless and surrounded by a thin but surprisingly greasy layer of puff pastry and slice of watery artichoke. I'd be a lot easier on it, perhaps, if it didn't cost a whacking £36 - there wasn't much to justify the price tag in terms of quality of ingredients or preparation. My friends suckling pig was also declared "dull", having not much in the way of porky flavour and presented weirdly with sugar snap peas(!), although the way they'd created medallions wrapped with a thin layer of crispy crackling was quite clever. It cost £34.
Stuffed by this point, though hardly otherwise satisfied, we skipped dessert in lieu of a cheeky digestif and gingerly asked for the bill. Had we ploughed on with dessert, and God forbid even cheese, the total could have reached even more catastrophic levels but bearing in mind we'd had just one bottle of one of the cheaper wines and the welcome glasses of prosecco were on the house, it still came to a frankly silly £230 for two. And while we'd enjoyed parts of our meal, not much other than the lobster tagliolini and perhaps the barmy-but-impressive fish crudo were worth the bold figures attached to them. Even spending someone else's money I felt mildly violated, and while I appreciate the prices may be reflecting the location and the setting (it is a lovely room) just as much as the food we were served, it's still a long, long way off being anything approaching good value. If you've got more money than tastebuds, or access to a healthy expense account, then dining somewhere with a menu of multi-thousand-pound vintage cognacs and a Beluga caviar for £500 a pop may hold some attraction. For the rest of us though, my advice is to spend your monthly salary elsewhere.