Wednesday, 22 May 2019

STK, Aldwych

There are lots of rubbish steakhouses in London. One of my earliest posts was of an evening at Angus Steakhouse on Coventry Street, where I suspected I was going to have a terrible time and absolutely did, but in the end of course what I or any of the readers of my blog thought about the food at that awful place was of profound insignificance. Nine years on, Angus Steakhouse, and Steak & Co., and Black and Blue, and countless other terrible tourist dive steakhouses are still with us because they don't need anything so frivolous as good food, and good reviews, to make money. They just need a highly visible West End location, a huge number of visitors naive enough to be shaken down for their tourist dollar at least once, and a gross profit per dish that would make a 5-star hotel room service menu look like a school canteen.

Yes, there are a lot of rubbish steakhouses in London, and there always will be. STK, though, is not one of them. However much it looks at first glance like a Croydon nightclub (disclaimer: I have never been to a nightclub in Croydon, but I strongly suspect a lot of them look like STK), and however much they may court the Instagram crowd in the manner of places like Sketch with their signature lighting schemes and plush d├ęcor, where it matters the food offering is considered, classy, and generally worth the money being asked for it. Which is definitely not true of Sketch, take it from me.

Anyway, to STK. The first thing I do in any steakhouse, and I recommend you do the same - it's a great control variable, is order a martini. This came in a frozen glass (tick), with a twist (tick), was not too dry (tick) and was made with Bombay Sapphire (IMMEDIATE FAIL AND DISQUALIFICATION). In a world where Beefeater exists, I will never understand why anyone's house pour should be Bombay Sapphire - it's horrid stuff. Nevertheless, it was a cold martini, so there was still something to enjoy.

The house bread at STK is this bizarre thing. It's a large brioche bun, topped with blue cheese butter, alongside a little pot of bright green chimmichurri. None of it should work together, or ever has worked together historically as far as I know, and yet, you know what, it was quite nice. Sweet brioche, salty blue cheese butter, and a little dipping pot of herb and garlic. Yeah, it's weird dipping bread and butter into oil, and there was quite a lot of different flavours going on, but none of them were jarring. And how much more interesting, in the end, than the usual white roll.

But I imagine you'll be wanting to know what the steaks were like. First up, my Dedham Vale sirloin (dry aged to 28 days apparently, which I always think is the right amount of time to dry age steak). If you're used to the super-charred Basque style then the appearance of this rather timidly-grilled specimen may come as somewhat of a disappointment. However, through pinpoint seasoning and by virtue of the fact the steak itself was clearly high quality - powerfully flavoured and with a texture just the right side of tender - that I polished the whole thing off incredibly easily. Which anyone who knows me will tell you, is a rare thing indeed. The less said about a horrid "peppercorn sauce" that tasted of sugared wallpaper paste the better, although the red wine jus was quite nice.

USDA fillet came topped with a mushroom, because you could, and why the hell not, and was similarly seasoned and cooked perfectly accurately. As expected, and desired, the USDA steak was more about buttery mouthfeel and that addictive melty texture than the more distinct flavour of grass-fed cow, but this was still a Nice Steak. You'd hope so, too, for £39 for 200g of it, but that's USDA for you. The Dedham Vale was £26, which is fantastic value and the one I'd go for if I was to return.

Sides also acquitted themselves admirably. Mac & cheese was full of the good stuff, and with a lovely golden brown crust of grilled cheese on top. To be perfectly honest I barely had a taste of this before it disappeared, but I suppose that just shows you how good it was.

Fries were great, which is always a relief - crisp and dry and nicely seasoned. And broccoli with chilli, pine nuts and pecorino was classic combo done very well. So no complaints there, either.

It feels like damning with faint praise to say STK could have been a lot worse, but I don't mean that in a cynical way. A flashy imported US chain self-consciously occupying a prominent West End location, with an equal emphasis on clubbing and cocktails than steaks and service, it could so easily have been an utter car crash, falling inbetween two conflicting priorities and pleasing nobody. That even I, a cynical steak-obsessed food blogger with an aversion to late nights and loud music so extreme I come out in hives if I'm not in bed by 10pm, managed to enjoy my evening here is a testament to, despite appearances, a kitchen team that by and large know what they're doing and service (with the usual caveat that they knew I was reviewing) that didn't put a foot wrong. Swap out the Bombay Sapphire from the martinis and rework that peppercorn sauce and I'd find even more to like. But even in its current form, STK is quite the thing.

Postscript: As I occasionally try to do on the back of a comped invite, I went back to STK for lunch to sample a bit more of the menu, in this case hoping to try their burger. Steakhouse burgers are usually fantastic things - in good steakhouses at least - using the cheaper cuts of the dry-aged animals available on the full steak menu to make a luxurious high-end sandwich. As it turns out, though, STK do not do a burger, despite what their lunch menu from January would have you believe. So I ended up with a couple of wagyu sliders, which were fine, but not at all what I was after. So I'm afraid as a steakhouse that doesn't do a steakhouse burger, they lose a point. Service was still efficient, except the bill came not only with a space for extra service to be added (despite it being included already), but the card machine tried the same trick as well. And to that I ask - for the occasional numpty you manage to con out of an extra tip or two, is it really worth the aggro caused to all your other customers? Or indeed, another dropped point in a review...


I was invited for the main meal at STK and didn't see a bill, but paid for the sliders at lunchtime myself.

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