Wednesday, 18 June 2008


A north-easterner of my acquaintance (think the lovechild of Malcolm Glazer and Shane Warne, fostered by Alan Shearer and David Starkey) recounted to me yesterday his 'welcome to the south of England' moment, when a friend referred to 'your bog-standard tapas bar'.

We Brits are uniquely good at adopting other people's ideas and rendering them unspeakably mediocre, and so it is with tapas: formerly the leitmotif of an entire nation, expressing at one stroke traditions of relaxed dining, nighttime grazing and long evenings with the sand between your toes, to a generation of Brits 'tapas' now represents small scraps of toenail scrapings consumed by the kind of people who take their own lunch to work, when they wish to show off their going-out shirt and impress with their worldliness their latest attempt to foist their genes upon the world.

And Ortega does not help.

Ortega is quite simply the worst 'restaurant' I have had the misfortune to visit since I made the egregious error of visiting Morocco during Ramadan. We should have read the signs (admittedly not actually a sign in the window with the instruction 'Abandon hope, all ye who enter here', although by law one should be installed in foot-high neon lettering), when on a Friday evening in central London, after abortive attempts to eat in real restaurants, Ortega was empty and practically begging for our custom. The evening started in standard fashion, with little to warn of the horrors to come: a bottle of Cava, consumed in the bar, dulled our senses somewhat before our descent into Hell, but if Ortega wish to follow this line they should invest in Rohypnol. And chain people to their tables.

So, after downing a bottle of Cava and bagging an excellent corner table - it's a great room, wasted on such incompetent idiots - we were feeling primed for the full-on, sand-between-the-toes experience. It was certainly an experience.

Our first warning sign came when the desired bottle of Albarino (a tapas staple, if ever there was one) was unavailable - a fact only discovered after ten minutes' rootling around behind a bar well stocked with tetra-pak Sangria - and requests to replace it with the house white were dismissed with nary an explanation. We settled, somewhat against better judgement - or, indeed, any sort of judgement - on a Macabeo.

There's often a moment, whether it's during a meal, a cricket match, an interview or a date, when you know things are not going to turn out well. Steve Harmison's Ashes assault on second slip springs to mind: if Ortega were Steve Harmison, at this point they'd have delivered the ball directly to the back of midwicket's head.

Our waiter, bringing our distinctly warm Macabeo, decided that to leave any in the bottle would be to waste the capacity of the glasses in which they'd invested: he proceeded, despite the presence of four full glasses of Cava already on the table, to empty our entire bottle of wine in our glasses, making a great show of extinguishing the last drop and suggesting to me, holding the bottle aloft like the spoils of battle, that I might like another. I didn't. And I won't.

I object, in the first place, to the constant topping-up of wine glasses: I wish not only to pace my own drinking (fast, usually, but not as fast as accountants, and apparently waiters, would like), but also to allow my wine to develop in the glass without the constant interference of another slug from the bottle. I object to being pressured to buy another bottle, and I certainly object to wine - already warm - being poured before we'd finished our drinks. This wasn't so much wine breathing as dying: not waving, but drowning.

I was in such a foul mood by this point - before any food had arrived - that Tom Aikens could have turned up with a portable stove and cooked his entire tasting menu for me to share with Michael Vaughan and I would still have gone home disappointed. Tom Aikens was apparently busy, however - perhaps rescuing London's reputation from the abyss into which Ortega seems intent on dragging it - so, unfortunately, Ortega's own 'chefs' send forth their best efforts.

It's difficult to write anything about the food itself. It wasn't bad. It certainly wasn't good. Its only saving grace was that the portions were so small.

55 Charterhouse Street, London, EC3V 6HA

Food: 5
Drink: 2 (decent Cava salvages 2 points)
Service: 0
Atmosphere: 3
Total: 10

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