Question of the week: does food taste better when it's cooked with good intentions?
Question of the week: does food taste better when it's cooked with good intentions? Two restaurants have just opened in London, within a few miles of each other, but several worlds apart. One of them, The Hoxton Apprentice in Hoxton Square, is a new venture from the charity Training For Life. Like Jamie Oliver's Fifteen, it will give new careers to a few of the East End's long-term unemployed and homeless people. Its supporters include Jag-owning John Prescott, and Prue Leith, who devised the menu. The other, Cipriani in Mayfair, is an offshoot of the legendary Harry's Bar in Venice. Its backers include the modelising love rat and Formula One team owner Flavio Briatore. Respected critics - and Michael Winner - are already raving about it.
In their own way, both restaurants are performing a valuable social function. The Hoxton Apprentice by building links between the area's affluent incomers and disadvantaged local communities. And Cipriani by rounding up all the most terrible people in London and containing them in one ruinously expensive hell-hole.
"It's like Bonfire of the Vanities," warned a friend who'd already visited, and sure enough, Cipriani's clientele was unappealing even by the standards of the international super-rich. Cryogenically preserved dowagers with Raine Spencer meringue-hair. Twig-people in eye-searing Pucci and Missoni prints. Scandalously underdressed young flibbertigibbets. And on the reservation list, a single word to strike fear into the heart of any maître d' (or newspaper editor): "Naomi".
The art deco/ocean liner décor reinforces the sense of the large, white dining room as backdrop rather than comfort zone. The odd bit of Venetian glass references the Italian original, but otherwise the décor feels crisply featureless. That slightly surgical atmosphere is reinforced by the presence of scores of immaculately tuxedoed waiters ("more white coats than The Priory" as my dinner guest observed) led by at least three managers, so patrician that any one of them could easily pass for the Italian ambassador.
Like the original Harry's Bar, Cipriani doesn't attempt to do anything particularly fancy or unusual with its food; the menu features many of the standard Italian dishes you might get at your neighbourhood trattoria - though if you're paying £17 for tagliolini with pesto you're living in the wrong neighbourhood. Harry's Bar invented both the Bellini (peach juice and Prosecco) and beef carpaccio, so both of those were duly sampled. Neither was much cop, and at £20, the carpaccio, under-seasoned despite its trademark lattice of mayonnaise and lemon juice, was a scandal. Seafood salad - lobster, mussels and squid in an unexceptional dressing - was dismissed by its recipient as "bouncy"; not a compliment.
Mains are served Italian style, with no vegetables, and both my char-grilled bass and my friend's veal kidneys in Marsala were perfectly competent. The kitchen's strong point may well be in its comfort food - the risotto Milanese (made with saffron and beef marrow) that came with the kidneys was silky and ambrosial.
There's no pudding menu; instead, two waiters arrive with whole cakes balanced down their arms, like a human dessert trolley. This may be another touch imported from Harry's Bar; I wouldn't know, I've never been there. (Get her - the woman who put the chippy into Cipriani.) By this stage - around 9pm - the evening rush had begun. Like the storming of the Bastille in reverse, each new spin of the revolving doors brought in a fresh outrage, and a whispered chorus of "God, look at this one!" from our table. One by one our spare chairs were removed to accommodate the moneyed throng, until we feared they were actually going to take away the table itself.
We left Cipriani's atmosphere of febrile hysteria gratefully, and lighter to the tune of £160 for two. Claridge's Bar, round the corner, seemed rather homely by comparison.
Now, to the Hoxton Apprentice. It would be neat if I could report that not only is it an altogether worthier enterprise than Cipriani, but that the food was much better too. But that wouldn't be true (that risotto Milanese was memorably fabulous). It was pretty darned good, though, and the place looks great - dark, sexy and expensive, with nothing worthy about it.
There's a nice little terrace outside for lunch, and a simple, well-executed menu of modern pan-global dishes, from Thai green chicken curry to bangers and mash. Lunch for two cost £16 - that's the same as Cipriani, without the extra nought.
I'll definitely go back to the Hoxton Apprentice, though you'd have to pay me to return to Cipriani. After all, food may not taste better when it's cooked with good intentions, but it definitely leaves a much better taste in the mouth.
Cipriani 25 Davies Street London W1 (020-7399 0500)
The Hoxton Apprentice 16 Hoxton Square, London N1 (020-7739 6022)
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