VILLANDRY KITCHEN: ROLL OUT THE BOTTOM OF THE BARREL
Chains are rarely good things. If you don’t believe me, just ask Jacob Marley.
They are even worse when it comes to restaurants and, over the three years DH have been running this blog, we have seen perfectly decent initial concepts rolled out with inevitable diminishing returns.
Some are obviously headed that way from the get-go and it comes as no great surprise to us that Bodeans, once a rather fun if ersatz barbecue place in Soho, now has branches littered across the capital or that the FISH! chain puffed up like a fugu until it burst with a loud “pop”.
Some however, are more unlikely and when we heard that Villandry, that over priced but harmless grocer with restaurant in Fitzrovia, was opening a new branch called Villandry Kitchen in Holborn, we were intrigued enough to give it a try. Well, in fact we were drunk enough to give it a try, because the much needed fortification supplied by two excellent cocktails at The East Room was what it took to make us walk through the door after spending a good five minutes looking at the menu outside to see if there was anything we might actually want to eat.
Villandry Kitchen occupies a space most recently taken by a pizza/pasta chain and before that it housed one of the most lamented restaurant in DH memory, High Holborn. The emphasis in the large room is on the casual with long communal tables in the centre and rather optimistically, seats by the bar for solo diners. The menu is kept simple too with a small list of starters, a limited range of pizzas and an equally short list of “classics”
None of this suggested that any chefs might be challenged in the making of our meal, but given that the ingredients on sale and used at the mothership have always been excellent if alarmingly priced, we assumed that the same would be the case here.
Such silliness on our part was quickly removed when we were presented with our shared starter plate of charcuterie. For £7.95, I was not expecting half a pig, but three, yes count ‘em, three small slices of not great ham with a blob of under seasoned duck rillettes and some slightly nasty fig jam placed this very much in the removal of urine camp. Added insult it came with three slices of industrial baguette, the real bread costing another £2.95, and the fears we had before walking into the restaurant were confirmed.
If we had needed further proof that roll outs are no more than efficient methods of money extraction, it came with the wine. I did not dislike the light Loire Pinot as much as HP but we both disliked the £18.50 price for a wine that later I found cost them £6.75 from Bibendum. A 2.75 times mark up reminds me of a phrase I heard recently about molecular gastronomy “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”
While we mithered about the cost of the wine, our main courses arrived. Mine had been described as “chargrilled butterflied chicken” implying I would receive slightly more than a piece of chicken breast even if the £8.95 price tag may have made that assumption as optimistic as them having bar seating. In any event, it could and should have been more inspiring that the dry and dull poultry with which I was presented, topped with a decent pepper relish and rocket doused by someone with too heavy hand with the oil. A hand also used to good effect on a side order of beans.
HP, almost inevitably ordered steak, which, at £14.50 the most expensive thing on the menu, came presented on a board, with a fridge fresh slab of parsley butter and a mini bucket of fries. The steak, though messy, was cooked rare to order but should have been rested for longer, the fries had that uniform catering pack look and a small pile of watercress at the side was already beginning to blacken as, if like both of us, it had seen better days.
Like so many roll out restaurants, the food at Villandry, to all intents and purposes a fast food joint for those who think they are too middle class to go to Mickey D’s, is competent enough to avoid howls of complaint but not good enough to pass closer inspection. The ingredients, so much a part of the main restaurant’s offering, struck us as being sourced to provide food at a price for people who have other things on their mind than what they are eating and although the service was very friendly, it was not enough to make us want to linger.
Our bill, including a tip, came to just shy of £60 for two courses of food that will do little to add to the reputation of the Villandry brand even if, as I am sure the owners hope, it will attract tourists from the surrounding hotels and folks with more lunch time on their hands than they know what to do with.
We decided to have dessert elsewhere and as if to make a perfect contrast, headed to the bar at Vinoteca for a glass of dessert wine along with as good examples of buttermilk pudding and apricot ice cream as you are ever likely to find. It reminded me of when I spoke to one of its owners, Brett shortly after it opened and asked him if they were likely to open more branches.
“Why?” he replied “We just want to make sure we run this one as well as possible”
It’s a refreshing attitude and places like Villandry should take note that one is not always the loneliest number