Tuesday, 23 April 2013
If you were to make a list of the most glamorous and oversubscribed dining spots in London, what would you include? The Ivy, Covent Garden stalwart and default shorthand for an exclusive celebrity hangout, is a shoo-in. Ditto Scott's in Mayfair, where if you manage to get a booking between the hours of 7 and 9 you are surely something above a mere mortal. There's Sheekey's, favoured of West End stars and a very lucky minority of their audiences, and perhaps also Le Caprice, somewhere that generally hides a good number of influential and famous notables behind its lace curtains.
And all of the above, astonishingly, are run by the same people - Caprice Holdings.
If we are to measure a restaurant's success on its popularity - and I can't think of a better way of doing it - then surely they are doing something right. It's all very well having the best food in Britain but if you can't sell yourself, if you can't make the whole package of visiting a restaurant an "event", something desirable over and above the mere act of eating dinner, then you aren't making the most of what you have. Caprice know this, which is why eating in one of their restaurants means taking part in a theatre of soft carpets, white linen and stylish front of house who dance between the tables like they were born to do nothing else.
You could dismiss the whole enterprise as deeply superficial - and plenty have done just that - were it not for the fact that, by and large, the food from a Caprice Holdings restaurant is worth the effort of snagging a table. I still dream about the Dover sole from Scott's I had almost a decade ago; there are few better places to knock back oysters and champagne than Sheekey's, and now there is 34, which... I was really hoping would be good as well.
House bread involved a sort of cheese/chilli affair with the colour of cornbread, and some lovely salty Sardinian flatbread which I will never not utterly demolish within the first five minutes of being presented with it.
The cocktail list included a good variety of Bloody Marys (a clamato version with oyster leaf was particularly nice), but our favourite was actually a shocking green Apple Bellini, light and perfumed and tasting of very good apples. It may have tasted even better had my stomach not been turned by some dreadful apostrophe abuse on the menu, annoying enough anywhere never mind a smart restaurant in the heart of Mayfair charging £10 per drink. But a self-righteous twitpic made me feel slightly better, and I somehow managed to put the whole sorry incident behind me for the rest of lunch.
A shared starter of artichokes, anchovy and punterella salad was bursting with flavour and didn't last long. The great big chunks of artichokes were doused in a light citrus mayonnaise of some kind, "punterella" (I think they meant puntarella) added crunch and bitterness, and the little smoked anchovies - as long as you got a forkful of everything at once - balanced it out with umami and seasoning. Pretty as a picture, too.
Lobster Thermidor omelette was huge, rich, and not particularly attractive (why not fold it in half on the plate? It may look a little less like a cowpat) but had enough chunks of lobster in to justify the £20 and would be the ideal hangover food if you were the kind of person that has £20 to spend on hangover food.
The burger though, was all kinds of wrong. Perhaps I shouldn't have assumed that by not specifying either Barkham Blue or Mayfield cheeses that it would arrive with no cheese at all, but honestly, who serves a beef burger dry? The truffle fried egg, ordered out of sheer curiosity, was topped with a few rubbery sheets of preserved truffle (horrid), the relish on the side was very... familiar (I doubt if you'd opened a jar of similar from Sainsbury's you'd have been able to tell them apart) and the bun was chalky and dry and completely unsuitable. The beef was good, with a lovely note of charcoal, but short of separating it from the rest of the car crash and pretending it was a steak haché (which I ended up doing), it was wasted.
So 34 can't do burgers. OK, fine. But fries were decent, and I did like the look of the steaks being prepared on the grill, and the man dutifully shovelling coal onto it like a steam train driver, so I'm not about to dismiss the whole operation because my particular area of obsession was a bit of a letdown. I'm sure I could have ordered better. But then again, perhaps in a restaurant charging £20 and up for a main course, it shouldn't be possible to order badly?
A raspberry pistachio sundae went some way to putting things right; the chunks of freeze-dried raspberries were an interesting addition but it was otherwise a fairly standard affair. And so, overall, I'm not sure 34 is quite worth the eyebrow-raising amount of money they charge, when all they really are doing is serving solid food in a nice room. Of course, that's all any Caprice Holdings restaurants are doing most of the time, and look how popular they all are - we had a nice time, the staff are incredibly well-drilled and the surroundings (and the toilets) are of the highest standards. All this glamour, and fuss, and money, for me, just needs to have more to recommend from the food to justify it all. But then, what do I know. The place was packed.
I was invited to review 34