Beast, restaurant review: Give me attention to detail rather than 'conceptual dining'
Amol Rajan was appointed editor of The Independent in June 2013. He was previously Editor of Independent Voices, a comment, campaigns and community platform across print and digital. He was earlier Deputy Comment Editor, Sports News Correspondent and a news reporter. He writes a restaurant column for the Independent on Sunday, and has a column in the Evening Standard (Mondays), Independent and i (Fridays). He used to work on Channel 5's The Wright Stuff, and at the Foreign Office; he is also a trustee of Prospex, a charity for young people in Islington. He has written a book called Twirlymen: the Unlikely History of Cricket's Greatest Spin Bowlers.
Sunday 01 June 2014
'But sir, the concept is side-to-side," says the waitress, on seeing the horrified expression on my face. "What?! I want to be able to see Dominic's face over dinner," say I. "That's why people on dates usually sit opposite each other, not that this is a date. I mean, we're both married, me quite recently, as it happens." "But sir, the concept is..."
I've moaned before about concept food – or "experimental dining" – and basically I don't like it. All food is conceptual, in that it starts with an abstract idea; and all restaurants are conceptual, in that they bind together multiple ideas. So when the providers of a meal start banging on about concepts, that's when you think they probably haven't a clue.
At Beast, they lay the concept on pretty thick. With its high ceilings and long, wide tables, the concept is a "medieval banquet with emphasis on sharing", as the waiter puts it. While it resembles a modern take on an Oxbridge college hall, the clientele swiftly reminds you that this is central London.
Moneyed, suited, young and sexy, the crowd here look like they've either just received their bonus in the Square Mile, or are planning to spend their partner's. I would mark it down as more corporate than cultured. First dates and family vibes this ain't.
Before you even get to the table, you have to negotiate a face-to-face meeting with the King crabs from Norway, which are stored in a tank near the entrance and seem desperate to be free. They are one of two core dishes from a choiceless menu, the other being Angus beef, also on display. The owners previously opened Burger & Lobster, and now they're going bigger and better, with steak and crab. In terms of sheer quality of food, they pull it off.
The menu is set at a very expensive £75 without booze. Once you've got your bib on – a fun, informal touch – they bring out a quarter wheel of Parmesan, pickled artichokes, green olives from Sicily and black olives from Morocco, and caramelised onions, too. It all oozes excellence, and is accompanied by a first-rate olive oil and 12-year-old balsamic from Modena. But you want to go easy on these, because the mains are special.
Out comes the steak, the chef having guessed at a good weight for two to share (that's how they roll: don't question the concept!), and boy is it special. Succulent, tender, piping hot, beautifully medium-rare and marbled, fatty and flavoursome without being greasy, it's the sort of cut you'd travel miles to search out. It is made memorable by a selection of sauces, the best of which is either a sweet Szechuan pepper number, or a light mushroom and truffle option which I could drink for tea. And none of that is as good as the crab.
By now, meaty juices have dripped on to the bib, and the sinks at the edge of the room for hand-washing are proving handy. But the king crab, whose pink-white flesh emerges with very little resistance, sprays the flavour of the Arctic Circle all over the place. The flesh is moist but firm, and goes exquisitely with a creamy lemon sauce that is so good we forget we're full. The side vegetables – artichoke, beetroot, tomatoes with balsamic and apple halves, cored and soaked in Jack Daniel's – are a healthy counter-balance. The green salad is fresh and fine.
Desserts are good but unexceptional: a panacotta with meringue peaks and a deconstructed cheesecake. Drinks, however, are obscene. A whisky Old Fashioned is hopelessly mixed, lacking in both sugar and bitters, and unacceptably short at a whopping £14. The Tom Collins is better.
These things matter in any restaurant. In such an expensive joint, they verge on deal-breakers, especially when put beside other nuisances. For instance, the restaurant is hard to find, with no sign outside, and the appearance of an art gallery upstairs, before you head down. The wooden benches are hard, so bring a cushion. And the lack of back support grates.
I know this is London, but at £100 per person with booze, I wish we could have seen each other properly, heard ourselves speak, and left without sore arses. In my experience, mere details such as these are always sacrificed at the altar of concept food, whatever that means.
Beast, 3 Chapel Place, London W1, tel: 020 7495 1816 £220 for two, with three cocktails
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