It's funny how the personality of a TV celebrity can permeate a place he owns. Gregg Wallace comes across on MasterChef as a no-nonsense, don't-muck-about, straight-talking, plain-dealing kind of geezer, not a foodie, certainly not a cook, just a chap who loves his food and appreciates it in big quantities. His most characteristic utterance in praise of a dish is, "I could polish off a 'ole plate of that". When you visit his new restaurant, Gregg's grinning visage keeps turning up in your head, beaming encouragement, defying you to find fault and criticise his down-home style.
Unfortunately, it's all too easy to do so. Gregg's Table is in the Bermondsey Square Hotel, which occupies an unlovely territory between trendy Bermondsey Street and grotty Tower Bridge Road. I visited the Square three summers ago to review a new branch of Del'Aziz, attracted by a press release that promised a "striking alfresco area... with twinkling lanterns, ideal for a romantic evening". It was awful, a concrete piazza of horrible buildings with an overhead criss-cross of wires from which dangled garish spotlights. Three years ago, I complained that we were forced to look at the neo-brutalist Hotel and its ground-floor bar/grill, Alfie's. Now Alfie's has metamorphosed into Gregg's Table, you can gaze across the Square at the people buying ready-meals from Sainsbury's Local. It's not a big improvement.
The décor mixes the plain and the vaguely retro. Tables and floor are laminated, some private booths have been designed in Soviet-bloc leatherette ("I've never seen a booth I was so reluctant to sit in," said Angie) and lengths of wiring dangle above you. The kitchen features the harsh lighting and mosaic wall of a Bosnian correctional facility. But the coat racks are nobbly in an old-fashioned way and the speakers are playing Fleetwood Mac's "Albatross" from 1969, so perhaps the décor is a kind of tease. I can imagine Gregg nodding and smiling as his associates assured him the punters would lahve a bit of vintage-east-London anti-elegance.
A personal note on the menu tells you, with a little Cockney twinkle, that Gregg grew up around 'ere in the 1970s, and his menu is designed to evoke those heady days when grub was tasty. So the menu's full of geezer dishes from an earlier period – mulligatawny soup, Spam fritters, Welsh rarebit, ham and melon, cheese soufflé, steak, fish'n'chips – with a posh and pricey lobster thermidor inexplicably included. None of them, in fact, is especially of the Seventies. Most hark back to the War, the 1930s, the Raj. One could try and "enjoy a trip back in culinary time" as Gregg encourages you to do, or you could suspect he has no confidence about his chefs' skill with modern cuisine.
Some of the food was OK. Avocado with prawns looked and tasted good – the avocado mandolined into thin slices, the prawns piled up in a juicy hillock with a genuine Rose Marie sauce. The mulligatawny was tepid but fine, with rice, chicken and an onion bhaji somewhere in the lentilly liquid. The Spam fritters, however, didn't offer Spam, only some pathetic ham-hock fibres deep-fried in a batter and given a much-needed kick with a sharp, homemade piccalilli. My main-course boiled beef and carrots was a tranche of salt-beef, left in its cooking liquid for hours to the point of disintegration, accompanied by thumb-size lumps of potato, carrot and turnip. Just as I was tucking in, the waitress arrived with a teapotful of beef stock and upended it on my plate. The result wasn't soup, it wasn't solid, it was just a watery mess. Angie's Chicken Kiev was better – the chicken moist, lightly breadcrumbed and nicely garlicky, the mash fine if mysteriously sweet.
By the time we were working our way through a mile-high sundae of knickerbocker glory (it took a while to find the fruit, but yes, cherries and pineapple were in there) a miasma of gloom had settled over the restaurant. Was it the dispiriting drab-blue uniforms of the waitresses? The presence of glum-looking men (presumably passing-through hotel guests) sitting by themselves at four of the tables? Or the feeling that eating the food of yesteryear isn't much fun?
On the menu, Gregg announces his ambition for his Table is "to fill the square with local residents and hotel guests who just want a drink and to have good food while taking in this part of London" – a rather limited ambition for a serious restaurateur, I'd have thought. If the MasterChef judge can't offer anything more exciting than this, the locals will continue to eat where they're eating now – in Antiko, Pissarro, Zucca, and the dozen other Bermondsey restaurants where you don't feel you're being fed mediocre tat with a celebrity name attached to it.
Gregg's Table, Bermondsey Square Hotel, Bermondsey Square, Tower Bridge Road, London SE1 (020-7378 2456)
About £100 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"
Side orders: MasterChef alumni
The Wild Garlic
Mat Follas won the 2009 series of MasterChef and he moved to Dorset to open this eaterie, focusing on locally-foraged ingredients.
4 The Square, Beaminster, Dorset (01308 861446)
Thomasina Miers won the 2005 series and her Mexican street food chain has made her the show's most successful export to date.
Branches in Canary Wharf, Soho, Covent Garden, White City, Stratford, Bluewater; see wahaca.co.uk
The Hole in the Wall
Alex Rushmer was a 2010 finalist – and took the helm at the Hole in the Wall pub last summer. Hearty fare in a 16th-century timbered inn.
Little Wilbraham, Cambs (01223 812282)Reuse content