EATING OUT: The emperor's new clothes
SARTORIA: 20 Savile Row, London W1. Tel: 0171 534 7000. Open daily for lunch from noon to 3pm and Monday to Saturday for dinner 6.30 to 11.15pm. Average a la carte price, pounds 35 per head. Credit cards accepted
Sunday 09 August 1998
Don't think so? Then how about a fast-food joint for computer analysts called Megabyte? Or a charcuterie called Dead Good, where the waiters dress as undertakers and serve only cold meats?
Maybe not. But none of those ideas are any sillier than the latest lazy wheeze from Sir Terence Conran. Just how long did it take the designer knight and his courtiers to come up with the name Sartoria for premises that are almost in Savile Row, a road in the West End of London that is famous for traditional tailoring? I say "almost" because the bulk of the space occupied by this new restaurant is actually in New Burlington Street (presumably Bertie's didn't have quite the same ring to it).
Sartoria is the latest in a series of Conran restaurants built on the same basic principles: find a space, choose a name vaguely associated with the building or area (Pont de la Tour at Tower Bridge, Blueprint at the Design Museum, Bibendum in the old Michelin building) and decorate it with the relevant ephemera. Bob's yer uncle, Tony's yer best mate, and the knighthood's in the post.
As you would expect, the details in the decor at Sartoria are exquisite. A silver "S" is embroidered on white linen, the glasses carry button logos and the ashtray is in the shape of a coiled measuring tape. There is a beautifully lit photograph of a pair of tailor's scissors on the cover of the menu, and the cloth pattern of one of Rex Harrison's suits hangs on an otherwise plain white wall.
Best of all, a pair of outsized tailor's dummies stand guard by the door, headless and gross. Her pendulous breasts fall onto wide hips, he has grown vast on the rich pastures of an expense account.
The devil-may-care will react to these dummies by giving a full-bodied, Nicholas-Soames-at-table laugh and ordering another bottle of Champagne, on the company. Those of us who feel these exaggerated torsos are uncomfortably close to our own will pretend to share the joke, but ask for mineral water to wash down a plate of green salad.
Anyone who is of generous girth should get to their table as quickly as possible in order to claim the best seat. At ours, one person sat on a conventional restaurant chair of black wood, while the other sank back in comfort into a sofa. The room was light, airy and calm, its neutral tones punctuated by the small glass vase of purple flowers on every table. It was a weekday lunchtime, and the place was about two-thirds full, surprising for a restaurant that only opened in June. Almost everyone wore expensive suits and talked quietly but fast, as though completing delicate negotiations. The waitress was also dressed expensively and well, in a black Nehru jacket with gold buttons, black trousers and a white apron.
We didn't know what sort of food to expect, and Sartoria sent out mixed signals. Savile Row itself is about as old-fashioned, end-of-empire, stiff-upper-lip English as you can get. The outside of the restaurant, with its black and gold railings, long ramps and windows opening onto the street, looked Parisian. The main dining area's minimalist decor in black, white and grey is vaguely Japanese.
The wine list is long but exclusively Italian, with a catty commentary on the ability (or otherwise) of each region to produce a decent drink. The menu is Anglo-Italian, and surprisingly familiar. After a basket of bread baked in Sartoria's own ovens, dipped in olive oil, my starter was insalata of artichokes, boiled salted lemons and almonds. For the first few mouthfuls this was a sensation: the bitterness of the lemons overwhelmed the bland artichokes (they were, after all, only there for the texture) then the almonds arrived to save the day like a seventh cavalry of crunch. All good fun, but a whole plate of it was just too much of a struggle.
My friend Jane had mozzarella di bufala with figs, mint and red basil. The cheese was apparently terrific. So terrific, in fact, that Jane wouldn't let me anywhere near it. While I made vain lunges for her fork we chewed over the question of just where we had eaten food like this before.
The answer was right there on the menu, half-way down the dessert list: Chocolate Nemesis River Cafe. We later discovered that the chef used to work down in Hammersmith, and that since the dish is notoriously difficult to make, its presence was a bit of showing off - but it still seemed remarkably generous of Sir Terence to give a name-check to a rival establishment, particularly one where the food is so much better.
Anyone who has bought into the myth of Conran by eating at one of his restaurants will know exactly what the dishes are like: beautifully presented and fresh (organic produce being used wherever possible) but far less interesting than the building in which they are served.
I'd like to say wonderful things about the oily quail wings that were served with zucchini and grapes as my main course, but that would be dishonest. Better to let them pass without remark, as we did on the day. The side dish of waterlogged spinach remained untouched. Jane's scallops with borlotti beans and salsa were no better than you might get (for considerably less money) at an ordinary brasserie. For all its affectations, Sartoria was beginning to feel like a bit of a dog's dinner. Or, as Sir Terence would no doubt prefer, a cena del cane.
Not for the first time in my life, salvation came in a pudding-bowl: roasted strawberries that burst in the mouth, arranged around saffron ice-cream. This was feel-good food - full of creamy, syrupy tastes but light enough (it was fruit after all) to convince the brain it was calorie- free, so there was no danger of turning out like one of those obese dummies. Seconds, please, came the cry.
Or rather it would have done had we been able to afford such luxury, but at pounds 50 a head it was out of the question. Naturally, at that price, when we were so obviously paying for the style and not the food, I wanted to steal an ashtray as a souvenir.
Later, walking down Savile Row, we passed assistants daydreaming in empty shops and tailors scissoring by basement windows, and wondered how few of them could afford to eat at Sartoria. But then how many mice go to Disneyland?
If you believe the hype about Conran, or if the boss is paying, then go to Sartoria by all means. If not, then buy a sandwich, walk straight past, and spend the money on a decent bit of clobber. You'll regret it otherwise.
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