Wednesday, 1 October 2008

The Don

It occurred to me today, halfway through a 24-hour restaurant double-header, that the secret to a successful restaurant is to know, exactly, what you're aiming for.  Yesterday's dinner, and lunch today (on which more later), form the perfect example of one restaurant which pinpoints its target and hits it effortlessly, and another which gets the game shockingly, mystifyingly wrong.

After my whine on these pages some weeks ago about The Bleeding Heart, it may begin to look as though I have a vendetta against the proprietors.  I don't, at least not yet, but if I have to endure another soulless, uninspired assault to the spirit of fine dining I might well develop one.  The Bleeding Heart, as I wrote, is a competent restaurant hamstrung by blandness; The Don is a farce of a restaurant scuppered by idiocy.

The word pretentious is overused to the point of meaninglessness, but here it seems particularly apt.  The Don is irritatingly, overbearingly pretentious, so full of its own overreaching efforts at grandeur that it forgets the central point of any restaurant.  As the lovechild of Bill Clinton and A.A.Gill might say, it's the food, stupid.  The set-up is all very well, if a trifle textbook: a high-ceilinged, whitewashed room with comfortable banquettes and modern daubs on the walls; staff oleaginously obsequious; menu on crisp cream card.  All it needs is food, and here you realise that The Don were so wrapped up in creating the illusion of quality that they forgot to hire someone who could cook.  Chef Matt Burns, who recently hosted Pierre Koffmann in his kitchen, is clearly asleep at the pass.  Perhaps his Aunty Claire is standing in?

Starters set the tone: a terrine of Scottish salmon and scallops with (allegedly) a lemongrass and vermouth sauce could possibly have been sourced from a conveyor belt in the Ukraine, such was its giant Yo! Sushi appearance.  The fish was fresh, and despite my reservations probably not from a Chernobyl-affected river, but the sauce was barely recognisable.  A subtle sauce should draw out and intensify the flavours of the fish - I wasn't expecting the sushi theme to be followed through with wasabi - but the lemongrass and vermouth were so subtle as to be imperceptible.

Other starters included scallops en coquille with a pastry top, and a foie gras crème brulée.  80s, anyone?

I can cope with bland nostalgia, but the mains slipped into sheer incompetence.  Roast Suckling Pig on a tomato, white bean and chorizo cassoulet seemed a good, hearty dish to dispel any doubts about the kitchen and banish uncharitable thoughts of giant sushi, but its arrival struck the note of doom.  Apparently, in the mind of The Don, a cassoulet involves washing a tin of baked beans, cutting five slices of anaemic sausage and dicing a tomato before dumping the concoction in a soup bowl and hoping for the best.  Atop this inauspicious beginning sat two limp slices of pork: no crackling, no seasoning and certainly no talent.

The cheeseboard rounded things off in exactly the style to which we'd become accustomed over the course of the meal: pomp, circumstance, and a lack of execution which human rights activists would doubtless find commendable.  Our waitress tugged the trolley across the floor of the restaurant, sighing when she discovered that someone had dared sit in her path (at our table, incidentally), and rammed his chair until he was finally forced to stand throughout the entire procedure.  Fortunately, for his sake, it didn't take too long: the Michelin-aspirant (if not Michelin-equipped, to judge by our waitress' travails) trolley was stacked to the gunwales with a magnificent seven cheeses.  Count them.  Goodness knows how I ever made a decision.

The gap between ambition and reality at The Don is truly terrifying for anyone with hope for the future of London restaurants.  One imagines - especially with the meal ticket of Pierre Koffmann recently in the kitchen - that the proprietors are proud of themselves for having created a City restaurant which hits the heights.  They shouldn't be: this is definitely an offer I can refuse.

The Don Restaurant and Bistro
The Courtyard, 20 St Swithuns Lane, City of London, EC4N 8AD
020 7626 2606

Food: 4
Drink: 5
Service: 3
Atmosphere: 4
Total: 16