Tuesday, 21 August 2012
The Holborn Whippet, Bloomsbury
Sometimes I even surprise myself with my capacity to get annoyed about bad food. You'd think by now, wouldn't you, after 33 years on the planet, the best part of a decade in London and six years writing a restaurant blog, that a disappointing dinner would just be one of those things, a professional hazard, a passing inconvenience, water off a (force-fed) duck's back.
And yet, the opposite seems to be the case. I find myself getting increasingly grumpy whenever dinner I've paid good money for isn't up to scratch. I take it personally when I'm on the receiving end of some half-assed fusion concept or desperate bandwagon-jumping relaunch. I heave great sighs of anguish over a feeble steak, a sugary Pad Thai or stale Yorkshire Pudding. Perhaps I'm spoiled after so long spent seeking out the very best the city has to offer, but my capacity for disappointment seems to be at an all-time low; and what's worse is that the harder I try to avoid such disappointments, the more often they seem to be thrust upon me.
Take my lunch today, for example. The Holborn Whippet is a newish craft beer bar and diner at the end of Sicilian Avenue in Holborn. Sicilian Avenue is one of those hugely over-elaborate Victorian arcades which at one time you would have hoped housed fine jewellers and shops selling gentlemen's smoking accessories but now, given presumably sky-high rents and its proximity to main tourist drags like the British Museum and Covent Garden, is mainly populated by dreadful nationwide chains like Spaghetti House. But the Whippet is not a chain (at least not yet), and thanks to a very tasteful job on the interior and an impressive line-up of proper beers behind the bar, I had high hopes a similar effort may have been spent on the food. I can't emphasise that enough - I had every right to believe that lunch at the Holborn Whippet would have been worth paying for. I did nothing wrong.
The first creeping elements of doubt appeared once I'd had the chance to study the menu in more detail. The Whippet club sandwich, for example, is described somewhat unnecessarily as "two or three slices of toasted bread with mayonnaise and slices are held together by small sticks". The steak sandwich is apparently both "padded with roasted vine tomatoes" and "Severed[sic] with crinkle fries" which makes it sound rather dangerous. All menu items, in fact, seem to be paired entirely randomly with either "crinkle fries" or "string fries" apart from the Bloomsbury Burger (a name they're so pleased with they've seen fit to TradeMark(TM) it) which is "served with string and crinkle fries", which either means two different types of potato product on one plate, which would be odd enough, or, er, some string.
As it turns out, the Bloomsbury Burger(TM) comes with neither string fries or crinkle fries (or even string) but a mound of pappy school-canteen chips pointlessly scattered with parsley. The burger itself looked the part at first - the glazed brioche bun reminded me somewhat of Goodman's, and there appeared to be a nice dark crust on the two rounds of beef - until a bite revealed watery, grey meat of barely supermarket mince standard. "Cheese" (an optional extra for 50p and not included as standard) was in fact a very strong blue of some kind, cold and unmelted, that had been sandwiched in between the two patties and did nothing but utterly overwhelm the tasteless meat. Salad and some decent sliced pickles did the best job they could, but the battle was already lost.
Oh yes alright then, you can probably have a decent time here if you stuck to the beers and didn't eat. I'll have to give them that. And a few years ago I wouldn't have been anywhere near as harsh on the burger, either - I certainly still wouldn't have enjoyed it but perhaps I would have said that at least the bun was good and the pickles came sliced and it still cost less than a tenner. But unfortunately for the Holborn Whippet this is 2012 not 2008. The very first thing a new diner opening up in central London should do is check out the competition; and either they have, and are unable or unwilling to do things properly, or they haven't, in which case they deserve everything they have coming to them.
Anyway, I don't think serving a nice range of craft beers is ever going to be a good enough excuse for serving crappy food. They're still charging for the stuff, none of it comes free with a drink. It was still my lunch hour they spoiled, my money they took, and had I only bought a club sandwich "held together with small sticks" to soak up twelve pints of Adnams Gold I most likely still would have considered it a waste of money. So, damage done, all I can do is ensure that as many other people as possible don't make the same mistake, and make a solemn promise to try extra hard to avoid any such disappointments in the future. Wish me luck.