Barack Obama has a lot to answer for (apart from, clearly, having a lot to answer for) in giving the world a renewed sense of the possibilities of life. Even on this side of the Atlantic, at what was an undistinguished Slug & Lettuce and is now The Commander, “Yes, we can” has replaced any variation on “Ooh no, I don’t think that would be entirely necessary.”
Yes, we can be a porterhouse and oyster bar. Yes, we can install an in-house fishmonger (John Norris), a butcher (The Ginger Pig) and a florist (Hayford & Rhodes) in the cobbled courtyard. As for the spacious 120-seater dining-room, can we have stools by the oyster bar, booths by the window and couches by the fire as well as bistro tables by the open kitchen? Yes, we can. And can we get chef Robert Staegemann (formerly of Vivat Bacchus) to do sushi and sashimi as well as crustacea, grills and slow braises as well as pasta and “big salads”, as well as seared foie gras across three different menus? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.
Paralysed by choice, I say “No, I can’t” to the Springbok carpaccio and fish pie, and with the audacity of nope, order nothing more than Maldon Rock oysters and a burger.
And that is when all these grand ideas come to a grinding halt. If you are going to call yourself an oyster bar, then you have to do a proper oyster service; not price them strangely at £1.48 each, arrange them on ice on a stand and place them directly in front of the diner, not centre table, so they must be eaten at nose level. You should have more than a dribble of vinegar in with the chopped shallots, and you really should not send out a bottle of Tabasco – lidless, crusty, almost empty – that looks as if it has been in the back of the cupboard since your last divorce.
As may be becoming clear, I do not get this place. Something as simple as smoked Scottish salmon with soda bread (£8.50) comes with thinly sliced baguette instead, zebra stripes of crème fraîche, half a lemon cut into the shape of a crab, for heaven’s sake, and long strips of pickled cucumber and tough cucumber skin.
The Commander Burger (£9.75) sits on a wooden plank with a miniature deep-frying basket of unpeeled chips. Once squished together with its dill pickle, tomato, lettuce, aioli and soft burger bun, it is pretty much what you want from a burger, which isn’t much. A “12-hour braised lamb-shoulder stew” (£15.31!), on the other hand, has been cooked eight hours too long, turning it into a dark blob served with another dark blob in the form of shredded red cabbage.
The produce is fine throughout, and the wine list has plenty of options by the glass and carafe (including an oyster-friendly Jean-Marc Pastou Sancerre at £7.50 a glass). The floor staff are lovely; angelic, sweet and responsive, bringing jugs of iced tap water and mediocre bread the instant you sit down. But they can’t help me find a dessert I can order. A seasonal fruit platter? I am not that sober. A creamy mix of vanilla ice-cream, milk and Kahlua? I will never be that drunk. My default three cheeses for £8 are unripened and unconvincing.
The whole place is lively, loud and young. With the bare shoulders, oyster platters and flickering candles, it presents a very pretty picture; but behind it, the offerings don’t really rise much above food-court level. Some ideas are just plain silly, such as having a separate meat and fish “market” menu that itemises the market price and the cost of preparation for the diner to add together at the table. It all gives me a strange sense of being in some expatriate manifestation of a gastropub/chophouse in an Abu Dhabi shopping mall; something rigorously copied and in working order but not quite the real thing.
The Commander, 47 Hereford Road, London W2, tel: 020 7229 1503. Lunch and dinner daily. Around £90 for dinner for two, with wine and service
Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook, 10-11 needs help, 12 ok 13 pleasant enough, 14 good, 15 very good,16 capable of greatness, 17 special, can’t wait to go back, 18 highly honourable, 19 unique and memorable, 20 as good as it gets
Read Terry Durack’s food blog at independent.co.uk/terrydurack
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