"So that's a table for two in the name of Walsh at 8pm," said the cheery voice on the phone. "And just to let you know, the table's booked for two hours." "I'm not hiring a rowing boat," I pointed out coldly. "I thought I was booking a table for dinner." "Two hours," said the voice, with an attempt at firmness. "But if you need more time, I'm sure that will be no problem."
How can you know, dear reader, how much time you'll need for dinner? Can you guarantee you'll get through three courses in two hours? What if your pre-prandial chatter makes dinner start half an hour late? What if the atmosphere of candlelit romance keeps you swapping dreamy nothings over your fourth Drambuie until the waiters are sweeping up and putting chairs on the tables? What if you feel like storming out after the third pointless amuse-bouche?
At first sighting, the Chiswell Street Dining Rooms do not promise a long and leisurely repast. They're very modern, brash and incredibly noisy. The owners are Tom and Ed Martin, whose previous triumphs were The Gun in Canary Wharf – for years a popular, up-market gastro for Independent staffers – and The Botanist in Sloane Square, which is always crammed to the rafters with Chelsea-ites necking Becks whenever I walk past.
Sited on the corner of Chiswell and Milton Streets (the latter used to be Grub Street, legendary home in the 17th and 18th centuries to periodical publishers and their impoverished writers), the CSDR used to be a pub and is now that curious hybrid, an all-day gastropub that backs onto a hotel. The frontage is a beautiful dark green, the bar is stripped-down and brightly lit, and the dining areas are cleanly designed: cream walls, pale-olive leather tub chairs, wood panelling, big mirrors and huge vases of flowers. The whole place shouts 'Expense Account'. So does the clientele, in their gelled haircuts and Apprentice suits. So do the prices. So does the noise. The only thing that prevents you from turning tail and fleeing is the attitude of the waiting staff, who are unusually welcoming, and seem unlikely to bounce you off your table at 9.59pm.
An almost aggressive Britishness characterises the dinner menu: Benbecula langoustines, Isle of Man scallops, Cumbrae oysters, Lincolnshire eel, Norfolk asparagus. The bread was a good start – a small crusty loaf, fresh-baked and sliced into, and delicious. My friend Tim chose the seared foie gras with a spiced apple brioche and a port reduction, and wasn't impressed. It hadn't been seared. It might have been shown a photograph of a Dunhill lighter, but nothing more. "With foie gras, you expect density, smoothness and body," he said. "This is very raw and not hugely flavourful." The kitchen had compensated by overdoing the sweetness of the brioche and throwing in some candied hazelnuts. It didn't help.
My Herefordshire snail and bacon pie in a Guinness and mushroom sauce was heavy on snails and light on bacon. Flavour-wise it was fine, but let down by the undercooked pastry.
So far so not-so-good. The main courses, however, promised better. My stuffed Middlewhite pork loin was nicely cooked, the three roundels of pork balanced by two circlets of Clonakilty black and white puddings and half a roasted Braeburn apple, until my plate resembled a game of draughts. The pork and apple went together like Andy Coulson and David Cameron, while the slab of pig's blood gave it all a nice kick of dark and savoury sin. Given the riot of flavours involved, I was surprised to find some lumps of Branston pickle lining the plate; you don't really expect to eat stuff out of a jar when you're paying £18.50 for the dish. Tim's rack of Denham Castle lamb was cooked rare-to-medium as he wanted, but was bland and under-seasoned and the accompanying pea, broad bean and tomato cassoulet lacked salience. A jus of lamb stock with red wine refused to lift it into sublimity.
We shared a slightly burnt tarte tatin with a Calvados crème fraîche, caramel sauce and vanilla ice-cream, finished off the Gigondas (at £31, near the cheap end of the wine list) and remarked what a blessing it was that, though 10.20pm had come and gone, no one had come to throw us off our table. In fact, the staff at Chiswell Street, particularly our charming waiter, Dennis from Florence, are the best thing about the place.
Visiting the bathroom, I got a bit lost and found myself in the back corridors of the Montcalm Hotel. Suddenly, everything was plush, carpeted, hushed and corporate. It occurred to me that the food at Chiswell Street was like that, too. It's perfectly OK as a fuelling stop for City folk, to break up their knackering day at the financial coalface, but the food isn't cooked with much interest or passion. Like the Grub Street hackers of old, there's a faint suggestion that they're just going through the motions.
Chiswell Street Dining Rooms, 56 Chiswell Street, London EC1 (020-7614 0177)
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"
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