Thursday, 25 October 2018

Harry's Bar, Marylebone

In case there was any shred of doubt left that I am not a hopeless restaurant spod, I should tell you I sometimes spend "down time" looking at menus. Not always for places I'm due to visit (in fact not even usually places I'm due to visit - I like to be surprised, or at least not disappointed that something I've set my heart on isn't available when I get there) but for multi-starred gastro-palaces in Paris or the south of France, where punters happily shell out €140 for a starter and the descriptions of the dishes sound like a cross between a haiku and a bad trip ('Lake Geneva trout, lake and forest blend, spruce seasoning and white butter sauce (without butter)'. In the course of my virtual travels I've seen many extraordinary menus and marvelled at some truly astonishing prices, but nowhere has made my jaw hit the floor faster than an ostensibly modest bar on the Grand Canal in Venice, serving a range of familiar Italian trattoria dishes and a few cocktails.

It's not just that the prices at Harry's Bar in Venice are high. It's a tourist town, you'd expect a bit of a premium. It's that the prices are so ludicrously inflated past all sense of reason and decency it's almost like they don't want you to eat there at all. Here's a snapshot @samphiresalsify took in February; tagliarelle with bolognese sauce for €53; Calf's kidneys with saffron risotto for €71; €92 - NINETY TWO EUROS - for scampi which the restaurant proudly declares are probably frozen. Oh, and naturally you pay 10% tax, 12.5% service and a €5 cover charge on top of all this, in case you were worried €92 for some scampi was just a little too affordable.

Now I don't know what the food is like at Harry's Bar Venice - fairly ordinary by all accounts - but it is a pleasure, not to mention a relief, to report that in Harry's Bar London (no relation, weirdly), newly nestled in amongst a fairly grim selection of tourist cafés and chicken shops on James Street in Marylebone, the food is of a generally high quality and the prices are not only Not Ridiculous but in a couple of cases a genuine bargain. Take this basket of nduja bread, for example - basically an entire pizza sliced up, it costs a teensy £4.95 (plus service, but no tax or cover charge) and could easily make a pretty decent lunch for one. Zédel Brasserie, eat your heart out.

From the 'antipasti' section though it was time to push the boat out a bit. "Harry's Tagliolini" is a decadent merging of truffle, parmesan and cream (oh my!), baked in a little copper pan and flamboyantly slopped onto a plate tableside before being showered in more grated parmesan. With no one element overwhelming another, and with just the right amount of black truffle (which is to say, an absolute shitload), this was a belter of a dish, and although £12.50 is quite a lot, with all that truffle it still felt like value.

We were hardly about to settle for just the one pasta dish though, so next up was this heaving pile of pappardelle al ragú Bolognese which certainly contained plenty of slow-cooked beef even if it could all done with a bit more depth of flavour. Weirdly I don't think salt would have helped here - the ragú itself was just a bit watery and underpowered - but there was still lots to like about the pasta itself and I did polish it off.

Better, in fact much better, in fact very good indeed was the vongole, a gloriously buttery affair containing loads of fresh, plump clams and pasta so slippery and elastic it was almost alive. Lots of pasta restaurants in London attempt vongole. Not many of them are any good. This was.

We were steered towards ordering the veal parmesan not just, it has to be said, by the staff at Harry's Bar, but also friends on Twitter who considered it a highlight of the secondi. And it's probably not anyone's fault, not least the supremely attentive and personable staff at Harry's Bar, that I'm not a huge fan of veal and probably should have stuck to my guns and gone for the truffled chicken as planned. Anyway, the point is, I didn't like it much - veal is a weird, bland meat and coating it in breadcrumbs and deep-frying it just served to highlight its weird, greasy blandness. Not even a very nice tomato dressing could spark much of interest. Still, at least I'll know for next time.

Desserts started off quite normally and pleasantly. Profiteroles had been given the extra zshuzhing of being piped full of milk gelato instead of the usual cream, which was a very nice touch, and the chocolate sauce draped over the top had a lovely glossy finish. Perhaps the extra effort gone into topping each pastry with gold leaf would have been better spent making the pastry itself lighter and a bit less chewy, but this was still a very decent sweet, and well worth anyone's time.

The other dessert was a toadstool. To say it felt a little out of place on what had otherwise been a solidly familiar Italian bistro menu is somewhat of an understatement; it was like sitting down to a meal of mixed grill and tinda masala at Tayyabs and then for dessert being presented with kulfi and bread pudding fashioned into the shape of an enormous pink flamingo. Not unimpressive, not necessarily unwelcome, just very, very weird. Anyway, the toadstool (frozen ricotta, white chocolate and I think some sort of basil sauce) just about lived up to the theatrical visuals, though to be honest I'm not sure whether the ricotta needed more sugar or I'm just put off toadstools for life after reading Stormy Daniels' book.

This was an invite, so we didn't see a bill, but I think with a Bellini, a bottle of nice Barbera and a glass of Tuscan dessert wine I think it would have come to something like £70/head - not exactly cheap but completely acceptable for central London and for service and surroundings like these. Oh yes, the room - you're in the mood to enjoy yourself the moment you step into Harry's Bar; the sensitively-lit tables, dark wood panelling, low ceiling and etched mirrors create a cosseted, clandestine atmosphere, with the noise levels pitched expertly at just loud enough to prevent you from overhearing other people's conversations. It's almost as if the guys who launched the Ivy, Scott's and J Sheekey knew something about how to design a restaurant. Shocking, really.

So yes, another hit for Caprice Holdings and judging by the throngs packed inside and out last night (there are some tables outside perched genuinely distressingly close to the idling minicabs on James Street but I suppose are better than nothing) it's going to do very well indeed. Increasingly it seems as I get older I find things like sparkling service and lovely clubby surroundings can distract from minor off-notes with the food, though no doubt this time next week I'll be back to moaning about places that spend all their money on soft furnishings and have nothing left over for chefs. And what do I know anyway? Just go to Harry's Bar, snuggle into a corner table, order a bottle of red and a plate of pasta. You'll love it. In fact, go crazy - have a toadstool.


I was invited to Harry's Bar and didn't see a bill


Andy K said...

I sort of feel a bit conflicted about the Caprice group - on the one hand, the restaurants are generally places where you know you'll have a good time, on the other the owner is a near-billionaire tax-avoider who involves himself with British politics despite being a non-dom...

Nationwide said...

Interesting. You're right, it is, as far as I know, "no relation" to the original Harry's Bar in Venice, easily the greatest ripoff in world tourism (tinned peach juice, cheap prossecco, that'll be £20 please)
The owners,one branch of the Cipriani family, sold their own name to Orient Express because of the eponymous Venetian hotel, it's why the family was subsequently forced to change the name of their Davies Street restaurant to "C" as they can't trade in the UK under their own name.
Mark Birley started the club in Mayfair, Harry's Bar, as a 'homage'to the Venice original, and of course to the chagrin of his surviving son Robin, Caring now owns that, Annabels, etc.
Still with me?
Well I can only assume, now that Caring is rolling out Harry's Bar as a chain, the Ciprianis (and their lawyers) have already agreed. Maybe they're partners.

Anonymous said...

"Lots of pasta restaurants in London attempt vongole. Not many of them are any good."

I think that falls under the class of food that in most cases is probably better made at home. It should be difficult to cock up vongole, and even when mediocre (meaning my home made stuff, since I'm no great chef myself) it is extremely satisfying. I suspect that restaurants keep succumbing to the temptation to tart up a very simple dish that requires no tarting up whatsoever. The only real options are chilli no chilli, and whether or not to use butter along with the olive oil. (For the record, I think the butter can overwhelm the clamminess but chilli is great)

Anonymous said...

Top points for the Trump Mario Kart reference

Chloe Borderick said...

That truffle dish looks insanely good...

LIFE & LOVES: A Foodie Blog

Wiewelt said...

You're great..I haven't always enjoyed the same experience at your reviewed spots (I live in EC1) but I always enjoy your reviews.