Friday, 24 October 2014
Tredwell's, Covent Garden
The last few years have not been kind on high-end French dining. Thanks partly to an explosion in demand for budget American comfort food (MeatLiquor, Patty & Bun, Chicken Shop) and a determined democratisation of the mid-range elsewhere (Zédel Brasserie, Zucca, Bone Daddies, you name a cuisine, you can eat it in this city for about £20/head), all of a sudden places like Petrus, Alain Ducasse, Gordon Ramsay and (yes) Marcus at the Berkeley hotel seem part of an older, fussier, elitist tranche of expense-account sinkholes, not irrelevant as such but not exactly London 2014.
So not to take their increasing marginalisation sitting down, Gordon Ramsay Group opens the Kitchens (Bread Street Kitchen, and the forthcoming Heddon St Kichen) and Marcus Wareing opens the Gilbert Scott, each an attempt to win a slice of the casual dining middle ground. I say casual, but really these places are only casual in comparison to the multi-Michelin-starred flagships - the bill at Bread Street kitchen can easily top £50/head, and the Gilbert Scott is even more arch, albeit serving interesting British staples in the stunning surroundings of the St Pancras Hotel. I quite liked the Gilbert Scott, but still very much got the impression that Wareing's heart really wasn't into steak and chips, or charred butternut squash for that matter.
But if the Gilbert Scott felt a bit like something Wareing thought he should do rather than something he really wanted to do, the menu at Tredwell's is even more knowingly departed from the the brand, being a jumble of hipster ingredient buzzwords (kimchee, chipotle, pulled pork, beef short rib - if it's had an article written about it in the Guardian, it's here) served as "small plates" (but of course) in a variety of inappropriate tableware. Because hey, isn't that what all the cool kids are doing these days?
The concept is self-conscious and vaguely annoying, then, but that wouldn't matter so much if the food had been good. But though (in the main) it was all quite *precisely* cooked, with no glaring errors, at least not in the selection we ordered, there was no sense that this menu was really what anyone - not Marcus, not his executive chefs, not the staff - really wanted to serve. A £4 bowl of dry feta (almost impossible to spear with the little pickers as they just crumbled into ever tinier bits), ordinary olives and teeny bits of sun-dried (or somehow preserved tomatoes) was a bit like something you can get from Waitrose. Clearly someone felt that they had to serve a bowl of olives and feta, so here it inevitably is, but what good did it really do?
Chicken liver mousse I think had been squirted out of one of those foam-gun gadgets, and was prettily folded on top of a layer of bacon jam (+1 hipster points there) inside a kilner jar (+1). The charred sourdough bread it came with was lovely, perfectly moist inside and with strong black grill marks, almost worth ordering the dish just for that, but the mousse was decent too, very light and with a smooth, pleasant flavour.
I'd been told to order the "Smoked sticky chili chicken thigh", and so dutifully did, but couldn't really see what all the fuss was about. The smoking had made the flesh of the chicken quite friable, and the meek flavour of the meat was overwhelmed by a thick, sugary glaze. Unambitious and lazy, it was a bit like something you'd get as part of an 'Asian sharing plate' in a basement Covent Garden nightclub.
Seabass was, against all expectations by this point, perfectly cooked, all the more surprising considering the thinness of the fillets. The carrot purée and lentils it sat on could have done with a bit more seasoning, and I'm not sure why this was best served in a lipped ceramic bowl rather than, oh I don't know, a plate, but at least it had a nice crisp skin and moist white flesh and that's all I ever ask of white fish. £14 though - not the bargain of the century.
There were a couple of sides we ordered mainly out of curiosity. "Cauliflower, sprouts, hazelnuts & Berkswell cheese" should have been lovely, except the vegetables tasted boiled rather than the much more exciting grilled style that's more normal lately (see, some restaurant trends are worth following), the hazelnuts were either very gently toasted or not toasted at all, and the overall effect was, well, like a bowl of cauliflower cheese. Kale slaw was so thinly-seasoned and boring I can hardly remember eating it at all. Fries were good. Yes, I think the fries were good.
With a couple of glasses of the cheapest fizz and a New Fashioned cocktail (which tasted very nice but I always think using dried fruit is a bit lazy) the bill came to £86.06. Which isn't a fortune in the grand scheme of things, but still - for a meal so entirely unambitious and unmemorable it's still £86.06 too much. Everything felt crowdsourced and focus-grouped, the product of market research rather than individual creativity. All head and no heart.
Service was fantastic, and yes I was invited and they knew I was coming but believe me this is still no guarantee; our waiter at Tredwell's was pleasant and charming, a veteran - I got the strong impression - of Wareing's flagship 2* place at the Berkeley where his easy style and attention would compliment any tasting menu perfectly. Serving chicken wings and chips seems rather a waste of his talents, another awkward example of a group of people doing something they think they should.
But look, the point is, there's absolutely no shame in being high-end, if that's where your interests lie. Marcus Wareing is objectively an incredibly talented chef, and his restaurant at the Berkeley is by all accounts, (and even since the self-conscious renaming MARCUS and removal of tablecloths) still a wonderful place to go for a meal. Why not be happy with that? Forcing yourself to go 'down home and dirty', chasing the comfort food dollar in Covent Garden next to Hawksmoor and MeatLiquor is like an eldery uncle wearing his baseball cap on backwards and listening to Taylor Swift. It feels forced, and contrived, and uncomfortable. And I'm afraid I didn't enjoy it very much at all.
I was invited to Tredwell's
Photos taken with a Canon 700D with 50mm lens, kindly loaned from Canon