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

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