Sitting in the heart of Holland Park like a miniaturised Alhambra Palace, the Belvedere is a thing of considerable beauty. It dates back to the 17th century, when it was a summer ballroom connected to Holland House. A century ago, it was made over as an art deco palace and more recently it's been redesigned by David Collins in a mixum-gatherum of old and new styles. Walk in and you gasp at its crazy opulence: the mile-high ceiling, the beautiful arches, the long, white silk curtains, the hanging white Botticelli oyster-shells, the silver mirrorballs like huge pearls, the dangling Fortuny lamps with their saucy nipple tassels. It's all fabulously swish and kitschily chaotic. Outside, the restaurant's name glows in blue neon. Inside, the far wall is dominated by one of Damien Hirst's vast, circular butterfly paintings. But for all these strenuous attempts at trendiness, there's something stolidly old-fashioned about the place: it's the mullioned windows, perhaps, or the long service table that dominates the middle of the room.
The menu's pretty vieux chapeau too: hefty Anglo-French terrines, rillettes and parfaits, and classic Escoffier sauces (of which more later) applied to sturdy English ingredients such as calves' liver and pork loin steak. One can imagine Lord Leighton (whose wonderful Leighton House is only a stone's throw away) dining here with Waterhouse or Alma Tadema, and discussing how best to represent the flimsy gauze that half-covers the perky flesh of his naked Carthaginian slave girls…
It's also damned expensive (£9.95 for asparagus, this late in the season?) but I suppose you're paying for the lovely setting. I'd been hoping to score an al fresco table out on the terrace, but tonight a private party had colonised the upper room and the outside terrace, from where bursts of cheering and applause regularly punctuated our conversation.
A consensus soon arose about the starters. Smoked trout rillettes with a tomato and cucumber dressing was "deliciously subtle and smoky but without enough salsa", while seared scallops with a "salad Japonaise and oriental dressing" brought a similar criticism: the ginger-and-soy "salad" served the scallops well but the shredded carrot and cucumber was without any dressing at all. Had they forgotten? A cocktail of Devon crab and king prawns came in a cocktail glass, the seafood bulked out with too much shredded greenery, but tasted fine. My plate of Parma ham with roasted figs, rocket and parmesan, while perfectly OK, could have done with a touch of moisture.
So, my girlfriend, daughter, nephew and I all agreed: the food was good but a little short on dressing. As though to make up for it – as though the chef had overheard us (and the irascible Marco Pierre White, who used to co-own the place, still acts as consultant here) – all the main courses arrived fairly drenched in sauce, or jus or gravy. Four plates glistened with identical shiny brown puddles. Clearly there's a maître-saucier lurking in the Belvedere kitchens. But did he get his hands on the right one for each dish?
My daughter's monkfish with chorizo, cockles and samphire was fine, except there were no cockles, and the sauce was sweet. The menu called it "pimento" but it tasted to me suspiciously like hickory Bar-B-Q. Angie's lamb cutlets with Jersey Royals and young vegetables came with Paloise sauce (minted béarnaise) in a tiny jug, but a dribble of dark caramel gravy already commanded the plate. My nephew Justin's rib-eye steak was nicely charred – but was that dark, gloopy, tarragon-free jus really a béarnaise sauce? I don't think so. Only my duck confit with wilted pak choi and ratte potatoes seemed to be accompanied by what it said on the tin: plum and port jus. It was tender and tasty, but I was surprised that a duck confit didn't have a crisp skin after being cooked in oil.
We shared two puddings, a wild berry jelly with mixed fruits and passionfruit coulis, and a milk chocolate and tiramisu parfait with vanilla ice-cream. The latter was like a bar of Cadbury's Whole Nut covered in thin cream, but the former was yummy, the tartness of the berries balanced by the sweetness of the cloudy jelly.
There's something both disappointing and disappointed about the Belvedere at present. It's one of the most beautiful restaurant interiors in London, but it doesn't feel friendly or romantic (they turn the lights right down at about 9pm). The waiting staff are helpful but strangely glum. They erroneously added £40 to the already hefty bill by claiming we'd had a bottle of Nuits St George (a mistake, of course, but you know…).
Perhaps Marco Pierre might like to come round in his consultant role and do something to improve morale. And to suggest a modicum of restraint with those flipping sauces. The cuisine at the Belvedere may hark back to classic French cooking style. But modern dishes are seldom improved by such a full-on encounter with the Wandering Jus.
Belvedere, Off Abbotsbury Road, Holland Park, London W8 (020-7602 1238)
About £120 for two, with wine
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"
Clearly there's a maître-saucier lurking in the kitchen – but did he get his hands on the right sauce for each dish?
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