Olympic Studios: Restaurant review - The shrimps had a mysterious taste nobody could explain
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Saturday 30 November 2013
Now this is a place with real pedigree. I don't mean it used to be owned by Pierre Koffmann or helmed by Marco Pierre White or picked up a Michelin star under Raymond Blanc. Oh no. In Edwardian times it was a theatre-cum-dancehall-cum-bioscope (an early form of cinema, where punters could watch footage of King Edward VIII's funeral).
In 1919 it was the Byfield Hall Cinema with tea-house and posh orchestra. In the 1920s it was the howlingly fashionable Barnes Theatre, bringing Chekhov (starring John Gielgud and Charles Laughton) to the stunned suburbanites of SW13. In the Thirties, Forties and Fifties it was a cinema under various names – the Ranelagh, the Plaza, the Vandyke. But in 1966 it hit its most famous incarnation as a recording studio.
It was here that – roll of drums, show some respect at the back – the Rolling Stones recorded Sticky Fingers and Let it Bleed, and were filmed by Jean-Luc Godard laying down "Sympathy for the Devil". The Beatles recorded the original tracks of "All You Need is Love" here, The Who made their masterpiece Who's Next and Led Zeppelin their debut album. It's frankly awe-inspiring to think Jimi Hendrix used to strut around these premises in search of food, drink and less orthodox stimulants, and Madonna and the Spice Girls, though not, obviously, at the same time.
Recently it's been re-constituted as a cinema, bar and restaurant. From the outside it looks fantastic – they've kept the handsome frontage of the old cinema – and inside there's plush seating in the bar. Our maître d' proudly informed us that they've invested in a Dolby Atmos 3D sound system so, if you haven't yet seen the peril-in-space movie Gravity, you know where to come.
In restaurant terms, though, it leaves something to be desired. The décor is sparse-to-brutal, with plain walls done in Elephant's Breath grey, the furniture is canteen-ish, the lighting confined to Stasi-interrogation lamps over individual tables. It's dead cool but scarcely friendly. A gleaming cabinet of copper kettles is the only sop to old-style comfort. This is the place for Sight & Sound readers to discuss Alfonso Cuarón's light filters and gleaming backdrops – though they might be distracted by the chef's kitchen table, on which a maître pâtissier glumly constructs croissants and pains au chocolat for next morning's drop-in breakfast market.
The menu offers mostly familiar comfort food, from home-smoked mackerel to Old Spot pork belly, but includes a selection of made-before-your-eyes quiches and tarts that I haven't seen in a restaurant since the 1980s, and three monster main dishes to share: 'Sutton Hoo Roast Chicken', named after, and presumably resembling, the famous Anglo-Saxon burial ship, a seabass en papillote, baked in (hopefully not Anglo-Saxon) parchment, and the confusingly named 'O'Shea's Irish Angus Côte de Boeuf' which has been hung for 44 days, and will set you back £66. And for the hip young cine-swingers, there are some fabulous sandwiches: salt-beef with gruyère and pickled cabbage, Longhorn cheeseburger (how much classier that sounds than 'cheeseburger') and veal-loin with Stilton butter.
On a bitterly cold November night, my celeriac and rosemary soup was creamy and gratifyingly dense, with a sprinkling of parsley and breadcrumbs and a crunch of shallot rings. There's a sweetness at the heart of celeriac that can be off-putting in soup, but this was fine. Angie's deep-fried squid was exemplary, the batter light and crispy, the squid fat and tasty, the garlic mayonnaise not too assertive. I thought the portions were grudging, but that may be just greed talking.
When the roast duck with creamed leeks wasn't available, our friendly waiter offered an alternative confit of duck with butter beans and spinach. Inspecting the substitute, I formed the impression that it had been hanging around in an oven for too long, the surface parched and dry. The duck meat within was dark and a little over-intense, the beans were OK, and the combination, with a side-order of mash loaded with butter, was so filling I could hardly finish it.
Angie's roast cod with brown shrimp butter was frankly undercooked. Can there be a fashion for fish cooked rare-to-medium? If so I'm not joining it. "I like cod when it's white and flaky, not when it's grey and slimy," she told the waiter, who took it away. After 20 minutes a replacement arrived. It was an improvement, but the tiny shrimps had a mysteriously bitter taste that nobody could explain.
We couldn't face a pudding, so weren't able to check out the 'pear and cider soup' with butterscotch ice-cream. It was a rather underwhelming dinner in an establishment that offers a lot to those hungry for audio-visual spectacle and perhaps not enough to those just hungry for a good dinner.
Olympic Studios, 117-123 Church Road, Barnes, London SW13 (020-8912 5161). About £90 for two, with wine
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