Tuesday, 3 January 2012
The Delaunay, Aldwych
However much fun it's been having so many days off work over the festive period (due apologies and commiserations to those who haven't, of course) it is frighteningly easy, after two weeks of late nights and lie-ins and general dossing about, to lose track of time completely. I strolled into Soho yesterday afternoon with the intention of toasting the New Year at Bob Bob Ricard, only to find it disconcertingly dark and empty and, well, closed. As indeed was Polpo. And Wright Bros. And Dehesa. Turns out yesterday was a bank holiday, a fact I probably should have been aware of, but - to cut a long story short - wasn't. Increasingly frantic, not to mention hungry, I vaguely recalled some Twitter activity centred around newly opened Delaunay in Aldwych, and a grovelly phonecall and 5 minute cab ride later, I and a couple of friends found ourselves in seemingly the only restaurant open on 2nd January in the centre of London.
A lunch of convenience, perhaps, but that's not to say I wasn't looking forward to it. Sister restaurant The Wolseley was never really my cup of tea - sure they do a very nice Eggs Benedict but £13.50? We are still talking about ham and eggs aren't we, not Beluga Caviar? - but the buzz surrounding this latest place was deafening. Fay Maschler swooned, TimeOut gushed, and the word from various first-week visitors was universally, uniformly positive. And after some solid, straightforward dishes sold at a healthy premium, in an admittedly gorgeous room staffed with pleasant and obliging people, I could just about see how it could have gathered some fans. That was, until the bill arrived... but let's not get ahead of ourselves.
After some excellent house bread with Echire butter, the first dish I'd agreed to pay for as opposed to had forced on me (more on that later) was a Veal Holstein. At £21.50 it was a generous portion of nicely cooked meat but the unidentifiable brown smear underneath was less a sauce and more like something that had failed to be removed by the previous dishwasher cycle. The staff did suggest I ordered a side to go with it - unseasoned, damp but fresh tasting spinach - but this was crying out for the volcano of rich veal stock and truffled mash that Bob Bob Ricard's version comes with. Bloody Bank Holidays.
Other main courses were, admittedly, better. A chargrilled slab of Pollock was a beautiful bit of fish, simply presented with a soft boiled egg and buttered new potatoes - comfort food at its most comforting. And omelette Arnold Bennett, when it finally appeared (a mix up with the orders but one charmingly apologised for and fixed) had a good cheesy flavour even if it was a bit runny. House fries needed more salt but were crunchy even to the bottom of the bowl.
Desserts continued in the same not-bad-but-not-quite-value vein. The dangerous sounding Scheiterhaufen was the best of them, a sort of boozy bread & butter pudding, soft and creamy. And an individual black forest gateaux was very pretty although it didn't quite get our pulses racing in the same way other versions elsewhere have. But my own "Mozart" was a very ordinary mixture of tart orange sorbet, chocolate meringue fingers and hot chocolate sauce - in fact it seems strange now, reciting those ingredients back, that it didn't taste a lot better than it did; you'd think you couldn't go far wrong with orange sorbet and chocolate sauce, but I'm afraid it was just a bit dull and not really worth the £5.25.
So that was it, and yes, I can easily moan about the high prices and somewhat unsatisfying food but it's a formula that has made the Wolseley as bafflingly popular as it is today so you can hardly blame them for sticking to it. But it was only when we were presented with the bill that another reason why I had avoided the Wolseley for so many years was brought to light - the dreaded Cover Charge.
The Delaunay - like the Wolseley - is not a cheap place to eat. We had deliberately asked for tap water, like we always do, and had naively assumed that the nice fresh bread and fancy butter was a complimentary way of getting our expensive lunch off to a nice start rather than an obligatory extra course. But no - the Delaunay would rather treat every customer as a potential freeloader, and charge each of us £2 for the privilege of walking through the door and using up their carpet, than trading in this miniscule premium for a payback of good will. Do other restaurants with no cover charge have tables of 12 snacking on free bread and olives then buggering off home? No, they do not. Cover charges are a mean-spirited, cynical and completely counterproductive way of clawing a couple of extra quid off unsuspecting punters and I hate them.
Ahem. I would, of course, in the interests of fairness, welcome a response from any person or particularly any restaurant that would like to defend the "mug's tax" of a cover charge. There was a bit of backwards and forwards on Twitter yesterday between a couple of people in the "well it's only a couple of quid" camp (though doesn't that argument work both ways? If they think we can cough up £2/head without making a fuss, surely they can take that miniscule hit on their profit margins), but largely it seems people are as infuriated by the practice as I am. One individual brilliantly compared them to the Ryanair-style credit card booking fees - not technically unavoidable perhaps if you read the small print or plan ahead, but in practice usually so.
Anyway, as ever with these things the only way of getting our message across is to vote with our feet. I would never advocate anything as deliberately disruptive (and potentially excruciatingly embarrassing) as asking for the cover charge to be taken off a bill - and in fact, that's exactly what most restaurants that charge one are banking on - but we can at the very least avoid such places altogether. Fortunately there aren't many, and even more fortunately, one of them is the Delaunay, and you really aren't missing anything much by avoiding there.