ARBUTUS: WHAT’S THE FUSS ?
An old girlfriend of mine once gave me the heave ho because I described her as Reubenesque. I could never understand why she was so upset. She was certainly of the curvy persuasion and I thought it was rather becoming. Apparently, however, it was not something that she wanted to hear and that was indeed that.
I thought about her again tonight because Arbutus has a wide selection of pictures of nude curvy women in the gent’s toilets. As a friend would put it "bush n’ all” Most off putting.
Few restaurants in recent memories have had quite the immediate plaudits that have been bestowed upon Anthony Demetre’s new place. That normally makes me want to avoid a place like a bubo victim offering me a deep French kiss. However, when I arranged my supper date for tonight it did at least offer the benefit of a mutually acceptable location.
The site at the top of Frith St has seen God knows how many incarnations over the years. I never ate at L’hippocampe. HP did and still recalls it as the first place he spent over £100 for two ( and this was back in the late 1980’s I think ) I first ate there when it was Bruno Soho offering ersatz Moroccan food to a mid 90’s crowd that was wowed by that kind of stuff but soon got over it. He too soon got over that schtick and went back to what he did best offering robust dishes at the renamed Bistro Bruno. Then he was lured away and it became Bistro Soho before, finally becoming Il Forno. Quite a history and one that could lead one to believe that this is just one of those sites that cannot support a decent restaurant for any period of time.
After a quick solo pint at The Blue Posts, I headed off to meet my dear chum and arrived on the button for our 7pm table. It was, bar one other diner, empty although, by the time we left an hour and a half later, every table was full leaving only the optimistically set places at the bar empty and forlorn.
The room does not seem a great deal different from any of its previous incarnations. A lick of paint here and there and a few raffia mats but otherwise, identical. I trust they did not pay the interior designer through the nose for the refit.
While I waited for my friend, they gave me both the menu and the wine list to look at and, by the time she arrived, I had pretty much made up my mind what to eat.
The menu reads like a dream with plenty of offally bits, uncommon fish and even chicken oysters. I also heartily approve of the wine list which offers a wide selection by the caraf ( 250ml ) an example which all restaurants would do well to copy.
However, my overriding impression is of a meal which was, on the whole, better in the description than in the execution.
I wanted to begin with the Lamb’s Hearts but was told they had just sold the last portion. To whom?! When we ordered, there was one other diner, an elderly Japanese woman who did not seem to be eating lamb’s hearts or to have any intention of doing so. This is one of my greatest bugbears. A restaurant running out of dishes at the beginning of evening service. I overheard them telling a number of other tables that dishes were off during the evening. Shameful.
So, while my friend ordered The Chicken Sot-l’y- Laisse, I went for my very much second choice of Squid and Mackerel burger with BBQ Sauce.
The name of the chicken dish means, I am told “ only a fool would leave” as it refers to the best bit of the bird, the oyster. They should rename this “ only a fool would leave to cook for so long” The chicken had been left to cook until it was tough as old boots. The accompanying broad beans, macaroni and hazelnuts did not really do a lot for me, but my friend professed to like all of it but the chicken.
My dish was a total misfire. Excellent fresh ingredients which lost all semblance of individuality by being shoehorned into something clever. It looked pretty enough but the BBQ sauce overpowered every other possible flavour. This is the sort of dish that would win first prize if TGI Friday held a “ create your own appetizer” competition and it was won by someone from Nebraska.
One of the main courses saw a bit of a comeback. My friend ordered rump of lamb with tomato, artichoke and fennel. The lamb was really rather spectacular if cooked a little more pink than she had asked for. Fine for me though and it tasted, well, lamby which is a rarity in itself these days. The accompaniments worked too. A well thought out dish.
Much better than my own which was the much vaunted Pied Et Paquets ( tripe parcels with pig’s trotters ) This should have been THE dish. It has everything. It should have screamed of meatiness, intestinally goodness and porky death. It did not. It tasted of, well, nothing but too much salt. A huge let down and I mean huge. It was as massive a disappointment to me as I am sure I was to my wife when I switched on the radio in the middle of our wedding night to listen to Frank Bruno Vs Mike Tyson.
Puddings were equally hit and miss. My friend, being preternaturally girly chose both the desserts she wanted. For me, a Vanilla Cheesecake with strawberries and raspberries. Excellent. It had just the right amount of wobble ( which made me think of the ladies in the photographs in the loos) and a silken texture which set off beautifully against the macerated berries.
Less successful was the Raspberry trifle. “ it’s got jelly in it” squealed my friend in the sort of voice usually reserved for finding a pubic hair in your food. She is very specific about trifle and they should not, she assures me, include jelly. Who am I to argue? I tasted a little and, jelly or no jelly, it was not worth the effort.
As I said, I really approve of the way the wine list is done and we ordered three carafes. An Albarino, A Cahor and a Mushk ( Greek dessert wine) which all seemed to fit both the bill and the pocket admirably.
Service started off very amenable and efficient. By the time we left and it was more busy, it had become harried and patently less on the ball.
The bill for two came to £103 including a 12.5% service charge.
I can see why this place has received good crit’ First of all, the chefs are well known and therefore part of the clique that will get decent notices whether they deserve it or not ( take a bow, The Ambassador ) Secondly, while the room is definingly identikit, the menu is far from it and offers dishes that are seldom seen on on London menus and deserve to be seen a whole lot more.
However, they also deserve to be prepared with more attention to detail than this. There is real ability in the kitchen quite obviously, but it does not shine through in the dishes we tried. There is nothing here to inspire or excite. Just adequacy and I am not sure that is enough to keep a restaurant going in this location.
I asked my friend to sum up our meal in one word. “ Insipid” she said and I have learnt over the years, that there is little to be gained by disagreeing with a woman.
So, insipid it is.