Praising a hotel restaurant is like complimenting a fat person on their footwear; you focus on the positive, and try to ignore what's going on upstairs. No one actually wants to eat in a hotel, apart from residents who can't be bothered to put their coats on. Hence the proliferation of big-name chefs recruited to turn London's grand hotel dining rooms into destinations in their own right.
Without a Ramsay, Ducasse or Wareing, it's hard to capture the feeling that here, right in this very dining room, you've found the most vibrant spot in town. Especially when disoriented tourists are straggling around with wheelie cases. The best you can usually say about the experience is, "I completely forgot I was in a hotel!"
Not, I fear, something that will be said about HUNter [sic] 486, the boutique restaurant in The Arch, London's latest boutique hotel. Try as the owners might to encourage the place to take flight with its own quirky identity (it is named after the 1950s dialling code for Marylebone), it stays stubbornly earthbound, landlocked within the designery opulence of the townhouse hotel around it.
Carved from seven Georgian houses just north of Marble Arch, The Arch is a discreet and well-positioned refuge from the bedlam of Oxford Street. Humongous amounts have clearly been spent on the place. A shrine-like reception area, complete with electronic water feature, leads to a crepuscular sanctuary of gleaming leather and dark wood, illuminated by clusters of graceful swan-necked lights. There's a gorgeous, sharp-lined cocktail bar, and a sexy little lounge, whose huge circular leather banquettes can be curtained off for maximum privacy.
Then we come to the windowless dining room, where the designer seems to have had a change of heart. Suddenly the high-end glamour gives way to a mini-canteen, arranged around an open kitchen, with pots and pans dangling overhead and a wall of chunky sawn-off logs, as seen in Zizzi. Imagine a business lounge that has mated with a Shoreditch diner, and you'll get the effect; it doesn't know whether it's Horace or Doris.
Like the décor, the menu hasn't quite made up its mind, balancing ambition with an eager-to-please pragmatism. British staples, such as fish pie and braised lamb shank, sit alongside fancier fare, including foie gras and guinea fowl terrine, and there's also a touch of the room service in the inclusion of burgers and pizzas.
Chef Shane Pearson, until recently with the Electric, has brought with him some of the appealing presentational touches of the Soho House group. A selection of good and varied bread, served warm on a wooden paddle, comes with a slab of chilly sea-salted butter and a bowl of olive oil/balsamic for dipping.
The rustic simplicity of a charcuterie board, served with a hunk of rosemary focaccia, was let down by underwhelming meats, and some rather nasty olives in a small jar. My companion Sharon described it regretfully as "a bit M&S chilled cabinet". Much better was a roast beetroot and goats' cheese tarte fine, crisp of pastry and full of big punchy tastes. Again, though, the conflict between rustic and fancy played out on a plate decorated with puréed beetroot, but topped with a rubble of crumbled oatcakes.
Main courses are reasonably priced and generally well put together, if unexciting. Spatchcocked poussin, grilled with lemon and thyme, was over-reliant on a heavily reduced Madeira jus to supply interest. Confit of pork belly similarly fell short on the flavour front; all the fat had been cooked off, leaving the meat bland under its carapace of crackling, which could only be bitten into with a room-silencing crunch.
Service was erratic – we were initially blitzkrieged by offers to take our order, but later had to badger them for our wine – but generally efficient. I may have been mistaken but I could have sworn the maître d' called me "sir" at one point; something that occasionally happens over the phone, but not usually when I'm actually present.
An eclectic soundtrack, spanning jazz-funk noodling and Neil Young, attempts to inject some "Hey, I just hooked up my iPod" spontaneity into the place, but it doesn't quite convince. The clientele is just too polarised, with fashiony types at one end and uncomfortable-looking Americans in leisurewear at the other, and no normal folk in between. "I can't get the words 'transit lounge' out of my head," as Sharon said.
We ended with a sticky toffee pudding, served with a jug of butterscotch sauce and a lovely cardamom pannacotta, of perfect temperature and sweetness. This, with a couple of glasses of Macon-Villages, brought our bill to around £50 a head before service.
If you are looking for a stylish townhouse hotel in central London, The Arch looks like an excellent bet. If you were a resident, you'd probably be delighted to find a restaurant this good downstairs. But as a destination in its own right, it hasn't quite found its USP. Nice shoes, though...
HUNter 486 at The Arch Hotel, 54-60 Great Cumberland Place, London W1 (020-7724 0486)
Around £50 a head including wine, before service
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: Number plates
3 Royal Terrace, Edinburgh (0131 523 1030)
The playful food here includes dishes such as cabbage leaf coated in vanilla sugar – but the cooking is undeniably accomplished.
152 High St, Aldeburgh, Suffolk (01728 454594)
The cooking relies strongly on seasonal produce and local fresh fish dishes; very handy for productions at Snape Maltings.
22 Chesterton Road, Cambridge (01223 351880)
The cuisine is modern European at this intimate restaurant in a cosy Victorian terrace, just a short stroll from the city centre.