THE EMPRESS OF INDIA: A LOT MORE THAN A SOVEREIGN
How much is the average meal in London these days? It’s a serious question because I read somewhere that it is £60 for two. Where? Burger King? Wimpy? Have they suddenly revived The Golden Egg? I can’t think of any meal that did not involve the words “ fish” and “ chips” or "Mangal" that did not come in well over that and quite a number with those words that did.
I was thinking about this tonight as we stared in disbelief at the bill after a supper of such profound ordinariness that John Major may have to give up his right to a picture under that heading in the dictionary.
The Empress of India is the latest in the chain of gastro pubs owned by Tom Martin, the others being The Gun, The Well and The White Swan. I should have suspected how the meal would have turned out since DH have tried all of the other places and, while they have not been actively bad, they have scarcely left a mark on our dining consciousness and we have felt no need to ever return.
The Empress is way out East in what has now become Victoria Park “village” ( imagine the ££ signs in the eyes of the little scumbag estate agent who thought that one up ) and very nicely done out it is too. But, a cheap meal it ain’t.
There was the £20 taxi fares to get there and back. That can hardly be laid at their door but, if they want this to be anything other than a local joint (which their pricing suggests ) then they had better damn well make sure it is worth the cost and effort of getting there.
Then there was the meal itself. I had some hopes. The chef is Tim(?) Wilson, one of the stalwarts of St John in its heyday and more recently of Medcalf’s in Exmouth Market. These are both good things. Unfortunately, it is not really carried through in the provenance of the ingredients or the execution as a whole although there is obviously someone very capable in the kitchen.
Bread was non descript and served with some President’s butter.
A starter of pigeon salad for HP was not bad at all and the flesh of the bird was beautifully cooked rare. My wild mushroom and gruyere tart was a quiche by any other name and, for £6 a parsimonious if tasty portion.
A shorthorn rib of beef for two came at a whopping £38. They trumpeted the name of the farm on the menu but something must have gone awry between kitchen and plate as this was one of the more flavourless pieces of meat I can remember. What flavour there was lost any chance of being recognised by a liberal slosh of gravy over the hunk of flesh as if to display a total lack of confidence in the main ingredient. A shame as it was cooked perfectly rare.
It came with some of those dreadful fat chips that are blighting menus everywhere and two sauces which were actually rather good. Particularly a bordelaise which had welcome slivers of bone marrow in it.
Service was harried if friendly. I am not sure if it was the slowness of the kitchen or the staff but tables seemed to be measuring their wait between courses with a calendar rather than a watch and constant reminders had to be made to place orders, receive wine and order dessert or bills. Service in this country is hugely sloppy and here, while amiable enough, it was just not up to snuff.
For pudding, we split a mix of ice cream and sorbet. A prune brandy sorbet almost (almost) made the evening worthwhile but a slightly powdery chocolate and fridge fresh vanilla snatched victory from their grasp at the last moment.
We played our usual guessing game before looking at the bill. “£60” offered HP optimistically. “£70” I countered hoping to get a pleasant surprise. Well, I got a surprise all right but pleasant it was not.
£87! That’s eighty seven bleeding pounds. There is aggressive pricing and there is taking the piss. This is very firmly in the latter camp. Bear in mind that last week at The Fox the meal was only slightly cheaper but included £30 bottle of wine and food that while still very much of the gastropub style, was just, well better
Where did £87 from? We knew about the beef which, even if it had been any cop would have been about £6 over priced. But, £8.60 for a large glass of insipid pinot? £7 for two bottles of water? Quite frankly, it just strikes me as, well, a little greedy.
So, with our cab fare there and back it was £107 for two for a meal that would have been fine, scarcely more, at two thirds the price.
I rather like the poor creature in the last picture. It replicates exactly our reaction to seeing the bill.
No wonder they could afford to do the place up so nicely.