Zander 45 Buckingham Gate, London SW1 tel:020-7378 3838
Zander 45 Buckingham Gate, London SW1 tel:020-7378 3838
To dine in Westminster I took with me a friend who lives no more in the real world than I do - she works in the House of Commons; I operate in a field where a £40 restaurant bill is par for the course. Our corruption is complete.
My friend was only just recovering from a 34-hour shift recording the passage of a bill that nobody outside Parliament noticed. She ought to get out more; if only there was anywhere nearby to go to. Taking advantage of the lack of places to eat in the area is Zander, a brand new bar and restaurant that has opened on the site of the Crowne Plaza London-St James hotel on Buckingham Gate.
Zander is run by the people behind Bank in London and Birmingham, who also run a wholesale fish business and the two fish! diners in Borough and Battersea. The zander also happens to be a predatory, imported freshwater fish which anglers catch when there's nothing else, and is just being considered fit to eat; a contestant cooked one on Masterchef last week.
Turning hotel dining rooms into exciting restaurants should save other buildings from being converted into yet more bars and restaurants, if only we could be persuaded that they're as atmospheric for eating in as a space that used to be something else. To this end, designer Julyan Wickham, who first made his mark on Kensington Place, Fifth Floor and the original Bank, has installed what's said to be the longest bar in Europe, stretching from the street to infinity - or at least, the back of the hotel. With cocktails, a DJ and penumbral purple lighting, politicos, office workers and hotel guests were passing the evening here less prosaically than in a neighbouring pub.
A parallel corridor leads into the restaurant, a conservatory filled with aubergine leather-upholstered chairs overlooking the hotel's floodlit fountain and tree-filled courtyard. Only an anachronistic Victorian etched-glass connecting door, through which you can glimpse the swirly carpet of the hotel foyer, breaks the illusion that you are in a "stand-alone" restaurant.
But on our side of this telltale door, in this brave, new, glass room under a molecular jumble of white globe lights and with realist paintings of industrial zones, zealous men in black were priming us with New World wines at a pace guaranteed to make us forget where we were. And the kitchen was sending out dishes skilful and ingenious enough to dispel the impression that hotel restaurants dish out forgettable dinners to dislocated guests before the tables are cleared for breakfast. It's pan-European food with enough hearty British independence to please the conservative tastes of politicians of all parties.
Meat is treated most conventionally: ham hock faggot with roast parsnips, and calf's liver with bubble-and-squeak should get the traditional Labour vote. Dover sole meuniÃ¿re, and lobster thermidor are more patrician in their appeal; for reformists there's scallops with tempura veg and chilli sauce. But even if the menu's designed with honourable members in mind, my informant felt the prices would deter most MPs. However, our starter of chicken livers on a disc of puff pastry with thin slices of chorizo and a cock's comb of shredded beetroot pleased the parliamentarian.
But she refused even to try my salt-cod lasagne with rocket. She'd just come back from a fact-finding mission in Lisbon, where the pungent preserved fish is so all-pervasive it has been known to exert an undue influence on EU fishing negotiations. A food that was once a staple has become scarce, and because it's labour-intensive to rehydrate, almost a luxury. Here, the parsley-flecked fish sandwiched between circles of pasta impressively married Iberian and Italian, though the surrounding tomato sauce could have had more bite. Main courses representing each wing of common European culinary policy were satisfactory but less exciting. A steak-and-kidney pudding in a pool of sticky gravy had sterling qualities. Salmon came with a very sweet lemongrass crust, and chilli-speckled pak choi, but all the Oriental investment hadn't produced a notably interesting return.
The staff saw to it that our bottle of wine was long gone by the time we'd finished these. From a list divided into characterful and helpful categories like "juicy aromatic" whites and "medium supple" reds, we'd chosen a Len Evans' Bulletin Place on the reassuring grounds that it sounded more like a straight-talking trade union leader's headquarters than a "lively fruity" shiraz. Then, like persistent canvassers at election time, the waiters had returned to our table with infuriating frequency to top up our glasses. I'm afraid I had to send them away. Encouraging customers to get through their wine at top speed runs the risk, afterall, of turning them into irritable drunks.
Under Len Evans's influence, the puddings all seemed to include mystery ingredients. Pavlova with lemon myrtle and rhubarb curd, and a steamed ginger-and-chocolate pudding with pandan-leaf ice cream were the two we chose. If only my friend's chocolate pudding had been as superb as my pavlova, which, with its light, lemon filling, a soft underbelly to the meringue, and strips of candied rhubarb on top, was a winner. It all added up to the inevitable £40 a head. "Too much for me and my colleagues," concluded the voice of the House. People employed in the Palace of Westminster probably know the fiscal potential of everything except the current price of eating out. If they plan to escape from work, will they want to be prisoners of Zander?
Mon-Sat breakfast, lunch and dinner, Sun breakfast, brunch, dinner. Pre-theatre menu £12.50 two courses, £15.50 three courses. All major cards. Disabled access.Reuse content