Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Whining & Dining: In Brief

A few restaurants, bars and the odd sandwich shop that haven’t yet graduated to full reviews but are still worthy of mention:

Dragon Castle
Walworth Road, SE17

I didn’t move to Elephant & Castle for its culinary promise, but in Dragon Castle we surely have one of London’s gems.  Housed in a vast palace on the Walworth Road, Dragon Castle is quite simply the best Chinese food I’ve eaten in London.  The service is brisk and efficient – if not as amusingly rude as most of Chinatown’s finest – and the food ranges from the delicious to the exquisite.

On our last visit, a damp Tuesday evening, we had a pile of magnificently sticky spare ribs, perfectly crispy calamari, the obligatory Peking duck – one of the best I’ve had – followed by a selection of main courses of which the highlight was a searingly hot pork belly stew.

It’s long been a maxim of travellers everywhere that the best food is often found in the most unlikely of places: next time you’re looking for top-notch Chinese, avoid the tourist deathtrap of Gerrard Street and venture instead down the Walworth Road: as long as you don’t mind techno versions of Happy Birthday at top volume, you’re in for a treat.


The Trinity
Borough High Street, SE1

One of my favourite pubs: traditionalists will complain that it is emblematic of the current vogue for modern décor, characterless beer and formulaic food, but this super pub just by Borough Tube belies its gastro-lite interior in offering an excellent range of beers and good food: they serve Addlestone's, which keeps the Blonde happy, and chilli crackers, which saves me having dinner.  High stools in the bay window and winged armchairs in the shadows at the back, The Trinity is one of those rare pubs that is as good on a Tuesday lunchtime as it is on a Friday night.

The Royal Oak
Tabard Street, SE1

One to satisfy the traditionalists: the only Harvey’s pub in London.  I feel right at home sipping a pint of Mild with the Guardian: can there be any higher praise?


Vinopolis Wine Wharf
Stoney Street, SE1

Vinopolis itself is an affront to wine, turning the finest and most ethereal of drinks into the subject of a sub-Alton Towers theme park, but its wine bar is a cut above.  A wide choice of wines by the glass, and a page-long selection of English wines.  Knowledgeable staff, good glassware (am I alone in caring about this?) and plenty of sofas make this an excellent hang-out after spending too much in Borough Market.

Blues Café
West Smithfield, EC1A

The best sandwich shop in London, bar none.  From hot pork loin and apple sauce to bacon & avocado, Blues Café offers a fantastic range of sandwiches, soups and – on a Friday – burgers.  Just south of Smithfield Market, Blues Café is slightly off the trail and all the better for it.  Friendly service, superb bread and generous servings all set this lunch spot far above the ever-predictable chains.

Monday, 1 December 2008


The perfect cover drive, when dissected, consists of simple elements executed precisely.  The joy of watching Mark Waugh dispatch another ball to the boundary lies in the very grace of its simplicity: the cover drive is not a flashy shot, it doesn’t scream ‘look at me’, but – as Michael Vaughan would attest – it is good for many thousand of runs and the cover of Wisden.  The problem with such apparent simplicity, though, is its dependence on every element of the shot clicking perfectly into place: unlike KP's flamingo, where brute force and willpower can carry the ball over the rope, the cover drive can quickly degenerate in the flailings of an amateur.

Arbutus was the Mark Waugh of the restaurant world not so long ago: simple, stylish, and the coaching manual for everyone else.  Their masterstroke was to serve every wine on their list in 250ml carafes, an idea that makes such perfect sense that every smart restaurateur in London immediately followed suit.  Such a concept, supported by simple, traditional, well-cooked food, filled a gap in the market for fine dining with interesting wines at sensible prices.  Summarised like that, it’s a wonder that such a gap existed, but Arbutus perfectly identified a need and quickly became the darling of the London restaurant scene.

If Arbutus’ debut season was Vaughan’s Australian tour of 2002-3, their recent fortunes seem to be declining in parallel.  Just as Vaughan, unable to trust his troublesome knee, has fallen short of his former greatness, so Arbutus is falling short of the standards it has set for itself and others.  A cricketer that relies on timing and touch, or a restaurant that relies upon the simple done well, cannot impress with showy power in a slump; like the pretty girl with no make-up after a heavy night, they are outshone by the obvious, the gilded and the brash.

It is this fragility, this balancing act, that makes Arbutus so potentially great, but ultimately so frustrating.  Their carafe concept is simple genius; their food impeccably constructed; the room an archetype of the modern London restaurant.  Something is missing, though: the streak of excitement that bubbles up when you know that all these elements have come together to produce a restaurant to truly remember.

Last night’s dinner with the Major, the Blonde and the Recanted Vegetarian displayed a restaurant trying to recapture its glory days.  The lively hubbub of the opening months had given way to a deafening din, and our waitress was schooled in the fine art of phrase-book service: “are the main courses to your satisfaction?” was the low point, especially as it sounded as if she was translating from the Australian.

Din and phrase books notwithstanding, our starters fulfilled the Arbutus formula of simple ingredients cooked well.  Pappadelle pasta with pork shoulder ragout, braised pig’s head with caramelised onions, hare with polenta and parmesan, and soup of curly kale and potato, were all examples of dishes whose simplicity demands perfect accuracy of execution to make them truly sing.  None of the dishes – and I tried them all – had sufficient intensity of flavour to mark them out from an ambitious dinner party, and at Michelin-starred prices that should be the least of expectations.

Main courses were more varied in quality: saddle of rabbit with shoulder cottage pie was superb, but a bavette of Scottish beef was cooked significantly beyond medium-rare and was unyieldingly tough.  The beef also had the unfortunate distinction of being the only item on the menu that was under-seasoned: every other dish belied a heavy hand in the kitchen, but when it came to the beef less was apparently more.

Lest my criticisms sound too fierce, Arbutus is undeniably a restaurant producing high-quality food with excellent ingredients, supported by a superb wine list in highly commendable carafes, but my suspicion is that a certain complacency has crept into the kitchen.  Just like a batsman who hits an easy hundred on a Saturday, skips nets on a Wednesday and can’t buy another run for a month, so the garlanded Arbutus appears to have taken its eye off the ball.  Arbutus could certainly teach other restaurants in London many valuable lessons, but for now they need to get back in the nets, hit a few balls, and get back on track in that elusive pursuit of perfection.

63-64 Frith St, London W1D 3JW
020 7734 4545

Food: 7
Drink: 9
Service: 6
Atmosphere: 6
Total: 28