34, 34 Grosvenor Square, London W1
Saturday 21 January 2012
I'm trying to cast my mind back to the tail end of 2011, when 34 was my lunch destination, rather than my waist measurement, and I'm struggling. My memories of this new Mayfair smoothie, the latest launch from Richard Caring's fast-expanding Caprice Holdings group, have soft-focused into a vague impression of luxury, of deep carpets and heavy silverware, all sepia-tinted by the glow from a host of flickering table lamps.
Rather like a first-class plane flight, my lunch at 34 seems to have passed without leaving much of an impression. This place is all about expensive comfort rather than excitement. Nothing about it will startle the well-heeled diners who flock to existing Caprice favourites, The Ivy and Scott's, and who have already taken 34 to their hearts, judging by how hard it is to get a blimmin table.
From the moment you check in (turn left for the most desirable seats, as on a plane), there's a sensation of being in safe hands. A team of fluffers descends, one to arrange your napkin, a second to tweezer lime into your water, while another circles, waiting to proffer bread. Buckling up for the smooth ride ahead, I could have asked for a magazine, a massage, possibly even a dressing gown and fold-down bed.
The dining room is masculine and clubbish, with such low lighting that even on a bright day, it feels like the in-flight movie is about to start. It's tasteful enough, but bland; the muted retro-styling falling short of the see-and-be-seen glamour of Scott's, but not quite evoking the buzzy intimacy designer Martin Brudnizki achieved with the Dean Street Townhouse.
In one respect, though, 34 does offer something special. The steaks. Cooked over charcoal on an Argentinian parrilla grill, the meat here is as good as it gets. My bone-in Scottish rib eye was up there with the best I have ever eaten. And I ordered one of the less pricey cuts, at £33. There's an international line-up of imported beef on offer here, ranging from dry-aged Scottish, through prime American cuts (tactful – the US embassy is over the road) to Argentinian – specifically "free-range organic grass-fed beef from the islands on the Parana river in northern Argentina". Top of the range is Australian wagyu, which checks in at £85 for a 240g sirloin. In this land of the perma-tanned global traveller, even the ingredients have racked up more air miles than Piers Morgan.
With grilled meat at its heart, the menu pulls off the familiar Caprice Group balancing act between posh and popular, offering caviar, champagne risotto and lobster, but also burgers – even if one of them comes with foie gras and costs £25. In place of the trad Brit comfort dishes of the Mark Hix era, chef-director Tim Hughes has picked up on the American comfort food trend, offering short ribs, meatballs and spaghetti, and warm doughnuts.
My lunch guest, Russell Norman, worked for Caring before branching out on his own with Polpo, and for old times' sake he ordered a Caprice classic, Caesar salad. It was well up to standard, each leaf impeccably dressed, and crisp to the last bite. Less impeccable was my pumpkin salad with lemon-flavoured goat's curd; the harmony of its ingredients marred by the flabby unsweetness of the squash.
Mains followed starters at a startling pace, bringing out the old operations director in Russell, who estimated the turnaround between courses at around seven minutes. His halibut with brown shrimp, another classic Caprice partnership, was a golden lozenge of perfection. My sumptuous rib eye was let down by a side order of stale-tasting chips, served in the now-mandatory mini-bucket.
Departing from Caprice/Ivy tradition, the puddings are rather fancy-pantsy. "This is all new," said Russell suspiciously, on being presented with a pineapple 'carpaccio' served on a slab of rippled glass. Both it and my sloe-gin fizz jelly felt slightly overworked.
As did the heavy branding of the tableware, with gold-rimmed plates, pearl-handled Laguiole steak knives and even individually-wrapped toothpicks bearing the 34 logo – a naff bit of instant self-mythologising, but it probably comes in handy to remind the more doddery diners where they are. And if they are in any remaining doubts that it's Mayfair, the bill will certainly contain a further clue.
We paid £75 a head, which included a £10.50 glass each of Croatian Malvasia, and a cheeky £2 cover charge; Caprice restaurants must be among the last to cling to that practice. Still, baulking at prices in this part of Mayfair is like going to Alaska and moaning about the weather.
"He knows his market so well, this is perfect for where it is and who it serves," was Russell's verdict. For me, 34 lacked the theatrical buzziness of rival opening, The Delaunay. But it will doubtless become a favourite of the Mayfair set, who can watch their steaks sizzling on the grill, all trace of smoke whisked away by a top-of-the-range air conditioning system. And that sums the place up. It may have the steaks, but it just doesn't have the sizzle.
34, 34 Grosvenor Square, London W1 (020-3350 3434)
About £150 for two including wine and service
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"
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