Aurelia, 13-14 Cork Street, Mayfair, London W1
Saturday 03 December 2011
I've been eating in a lot of spartan, hole-in-the-wall restaurants lately. Places where the furniture is reclaimed from an old factory, the staff are reclaimed from a Kooples poster, and you can eat anything you like, as long as it's a big hunk of meat.
Don't get me wrong – it's great that London has got its own scruffy, borderline-fetishistic dining scene. But sometimes, as a break from all this gastro-machismo, wouldn't it be nice to go somewhere pretty and be treated like a laydee?
Aurelia is just the place for that. Depending on your perspective, it's a reminder of the old days, when ladies were made to feel special and the gentlemen paid the bill. Or it's a ridiculous throwback to a past geological era – the Permatan period, perhaps – when Continental restaurant managers flirted gamely with ladies of a certain age, while white-jacketed barmen conjured up overpriced Bellinis.
Aurelia is the latest thoroughbred from the family-run stable that includes Zuma, Roka and La Petite Maison, and its modern Mediterranean cooking is apparently inspired by the Aurelian Way, the Roman coastal road to Spain.
Posh Italian, in other words, with a side order of Jamon Iberico. But head chef Rosie Yeats has spent the past few years cooking modern Japanese food at Roka, so Aurelia promises to be more than just another upmarket Mayfair trattoria, even if the Aurelian Way never made it as far as Kyoto.
I'd like to say that the subterranean dining room, with its open kitchen and marble chef's counter, is beautiful. But I can't, because I never saw it. My guest and I were shown to a table in the less formal bar area upstairs, and only realised there was a swankier inner sanctum downstairs when we read about it later. Some kind of guest selection policy obviously applies, and we failed the test. Maybe because I was wearing trousers?
Still, the upstairs room is pretty enough, small and honey-hued, with expensive highlights. Foxed mirrors and marble mosaics evoke Venice, but it's an oddly savourless space – the restaurant equivalent of a beige cashmere wrap.
My guest, Erica, had travelled to London especially for this lunch, after her generous husband bid for it in a charity fundraising event. But our getting-to-know-you chat was bluntly interrupted by a waitress cutting in to explain the menu concept. "It's very original," she warned us; dishes are intended for sharing, and brought to the table when they're ready. Not that original, then – they do it that way at La Petite Maison. But maybe in Mayfair the concept of sharing is still quite a novelty.
Another non-novelty is the arrangement of the menu by cooking style – salads, rotisserie, grill, and the more mysterious 'kitchen' (everything else). Our waitress described it as being divided into 'departments' – rather like Switzerland, the country this immaculate, neutral restaurant closely resembles. There's nothing radical here – charcuterie, rib of beef, Dover sole and veal cutlet for the Cork Street art dealers, and fancy salads for the galleristas. Unusually for an Italian restaurant, it only offers one pasta dish – crab linguine – and one risotto, made with white truffle (£50).
We started on the lower slopes, with a couple of dishes showcasing the kitchen's Japanese connection – courgette fritto, which had the crunch of good tempura, and an escabeche of red mullet, with pickled carrot picking up the oriental theme of the marinated fish. A salad of Castelluccio lentils dressed with orange and mint, and smoked swordfish carpaccio with capers and rocket, were both impeccable; carb-free plates for ladies who lunch.
Just how far we'd come from the meaty badlands was highlighted when our salt marsh leg of lamb (£21) arrived pre-carved into a fan of thin, pink-centred slices – we're ladies, we can't cut our own meat! – and drizzled with salmoriglio, this season's gremolata. We partnered it with a gratin dauphinoise, which for an extra £20 can be pimped up with white truffle, shaved tableside. We caught a fleeting aroma of truffle, but the flavour never really fought its way out over all that cheese.
Cheesy, too, if well-meant, was the maître d's repertoire of jokes, arm squeezes and gallantries, all pitched at a register to cheer up a depressed dowager. "I know who he reminds me of," whispered Erica, as he threw us a coquettish moue from behind the bar. "Bruno Tonioli!"
A meal that was characterised by careful good taste, rather than exuberant explosions of flavour – pleasing, rather than fab-u-lous (as Bruno T would say) – ended with an autumnal dessert of mascarpone cheesecake, served with slices of spiced quince. It brought our bill to around £80 a head, including a couple of glasses of wine each, and coffee.
At which point, back into the real world for me and Erica. Aurelia may be doing great business already, but it wasn't really our kind of place. Or, more accurately, perhaps we weren't Aurelia's kind of women.
Aurelia, 13-14 Cork Street, Mayfair, London W1 (020-7409 1370)
Around £50 a head before 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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