Monday 25 February 2008

The Builder's Arms, Chelsea

Ask many people to name their favourite meal, and the answer you receive will most likely influenced by memories of old holidays, old friends and many factors often far removed from the quality of the food and service at the time. However, ask people to name their favourite restaurant, and you will probably be surprised how little the two overlap. A good meal can be a fluke, a moment in time that captures an emotion or relationship, a fortuitous confluence of good times and good company. A favourite restaurant has to be earned, and relies far more on rational concerns about quality of the cooking and competence of the service. Anywhere that produces a stunning meal one day and an apalling one the next will surely not last long, because the restaurant-going public are not gamblers. When spending a portion of their hard-earned cash, consistency is king. This is why the Fox and Hounds is a good restaurant; you can bring along friends and family time and time again and you are rarely if ever disappointed. And it is why the Builder's Arms is not.

In October I had a very pleasant meal at a (then) brand-new tapas joint called Pinchito near Old Street. Perhaps it was the novelty of the new, or the zest of the chefs for their new joint, but the odd niggle wasn't enough to detract from the fact that this was a competent establishment turning out fresh and tasty food. Zoom forward a few months, and that lovely bowl of fluffy light calamari had metamorphosed into a horrible dark-brown greasy mess, and what was once a fresh and neat intepretation of tomato bread (tomato pulp served separately with a little spoon) was now unevenly cut baguette wiped with tomato and thrown onto a plate. Pinchito has gone downhill, and I can no longer recommend it with enthusiasm.

Based on my most recent visit, I'm sorry to say that it seems the same malaise has overcome the previously excellent Builder's Arms in Chelsea. Last time, I had what I believe is the best Steak and Guinness pie it is possible to get hold of in London. In fact it was so good I made a special mention of it to the waiter, who didn't seem at all surprised and said that they got many people saying the same thing. This time, however, there was no pie on offer at all. Instead, the menu was geared towards traditional Sunday roasts and a few light seafoody bites for starters. We began with crabcakes and scallops, both of which were decent enough but failed to excite. The scallops were well cooked and had a good crust, but didn't taste of a great deal and sat on top of a huge mound of pea purée which smothered a miniscule sliver of crispy ham. Crabcakes were underseasoned and uninteresting, just big balls of filler that hardly tasted of crab at all.

The best you can say about the main course was that it contained good quality lamb and was not overcooked, but the quality of the other ingredients ranged from mediocre to very bad. Potatoes were crispy to the point of teeth-breaking but fortunately there were only two very tiny pieces. Roast parsnip was actually burned to a crisp - yes that's it on the picture, peeking out from behind the flabby boiled carrots in all its charred glory. Cabbage was alright, but could not redeem the rest of the dish. In fact you can learn all you need to know from that picture - this was a sloppily presented, sloppily cooked plate of food.

We didn't stay for desserts. It appears that what was once a solid, professional establishment has allowed itself to slip into mediocrity. But the whole experience just goes to underline my point - that running a consistently decent restaurant is not easy, and those places which do manage reliably good food without resorting to cutting corners are rare things indeed. I may visit the Builder's Arms again, and I may have a good meal, in fact I hope I will. But this does not make it a good restaurant. They're a long way off earning that.


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