Lutyens, 85 Fleet Street, London, EC4
Saturday 08 August 2009
Forgive me if I shed a tear, but a trip to Lutyens hurtles the ageing journalist down Memory Lane, to the days when one wrote stories on Adler portable typewriters that went ping!, and one hung out in El Vino's at lunchtime, chatting to someone from a rival newspaper about what the conclusion to your leader should be. Sir Terence Conran's new restaurant is imposingly housed in the old Reuters building designed by Sir Edward Lutyens in 1930, next door to the journalists' church of St Bride's. It's his third venture with Peter Prescott – they've already opened Boundary and the Albion Café in howlingly trendy Shoreditch – and, although this intersection of Fleet Street and Farringdon isn't a natural posing venue for the Pixie Geldof generation, you can be sure Conran knows what he's doing.
His twin fetishes have always been cool design and attention to detail, and Lutyens has both in abundance. Beyond a colourless bar area, the restaurant bursts with light. An opulent Allen Jones painting faces the greeters' counter. The dining-room is long with two immense half-circle windows at either end. The wavy-framed box lighting looks a bit frivolous beside the huge, fat, industrial grey stanchions, full of rivets and menace, that hold up the ceiling. The banquettes are the grey-green hue of wild sage. As your eye takes in the copper saucepans you see dangling from the kitchen ceiling, and the angled mirror that lets diners see what's being prepared in the fish- and caviar-preparing regions, you think: now this is a real restaurant.
This impression is reinforced by the service. Waiters come and flap around you from the outset: while one explains the specials, another discreetly slides bread and butter under your nose. The tall sommelier wonders, in a hilariously conspiratorial just-between-ourselves delivery, if you'd care to examine the carte. Our waiter, Juan, was knowledgeable and friendly, even when a bitter dispute broke out between my date and me about which oysters to order. And when we went for a smoke outside in St Bride's courtyard, Graham the general manager went beyond the call of duty in bringing us an ashtray.
Lutyens is a treat of a restaurant. You could sit and chat here for hours. The only problem is the menu. You read the list of dishes, experiencing one little tug of disappointment after another: Vichyssoise, soupe de poissons, coquilles St Jacques, goujons of plaice, artichoke vinaigrette, ballotine of foie gras, assiette de charcuterie ... I nodded off, halfway through; most of these dishes could have been found in a Robert Carrier cookbook circa 1968. Suspecting it was an elaborate post-modernist trick, I asked Juan the waiter: "This veal cordon bleu – how exactly ... ?" "It's veal stuffed with cheese and ham, cooked in breadcrumbs," was the reply. Jeez. Even my Irish granny would have found it a tad old-fashioned.
The chef, however, is David Burke, formerly of Bibendum and Pont de la Tour, an Irishman of flair and imagination. Surely he could transform these gastronomic fossils into something interesting? And yes, the food was a lot better than the menu. My companion had a selection of Maldon, Duchy of Cornwall and Carlingford Lough oysters, while I settled for three more, dressed à la New Orleans – that's to say, deep-fried with spinach and cheese. They tasted perfectly palatable, until a single rock oyster from my date's sextet blew away every taste bud in my system. It was like being drenched in a gallon of brine. I'll never bother with cooked oysters again.
A feuilleté of quail eggs offered three tiny eggs on mushroom purée in a vol au vent smothered in a yellow savoury custard which clogged the back of the throat: not a success. My main-course rabbit was beautifully cooked and presented in a slender wrap of pancetta, served on an understated mustard jus, with a hollandaise sauce flecked with tarragon. My date's bourride de lotte was less exciting, the creamy, buttery sauce not quite concealing the monkfish's lack of taste. A side-order of champ (Irish mash with spring onion) was yummy, but the creamed spinach carried a harsh aftertaste, as if cooked in an old pan.
We barely fitted in a tarte tatin about the size of a pizza, served with caramel ice cream, and blackcurrant jelly served with crème Chantilly with madeleines. Both were delicious but terribly filling: and the Proustian madeleine biscuit-cakes were total ambrosia, especially when dipped in a glass of Chateau Raymond-Lafon pudding Sauternes. There are many things to love about Lutyens, but the food isn't one of them, not yet anyway. If Conran played it less safe with his City clientele, and gave Mr Burke carte blanche to be creative, the cuisine would then match the charm of the ambience and the personnel – neither of which, regrettably, is edible.
Lutyens, 85 Fleet Street, London EC4 (020-7583 8385)
About £120 for two, with wine
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff"
Side Orders: City slickers
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40 St John Street, London EC1 (020-7490 9230)
The glossy black and white interior here is complemented by the British menu, which includes dishes such as Yorkshire ham hock.
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