Some things change, some things stay the same. The Royal Academy of Arts (RA) in London has stood since the 18th century, resolutely unrevamped. The man behind its new restaurant is on at least his sixth reinvention.
I first came across Oliver Peyton in the 1980s when he was importing Japanese beer and I was… well, I was drinking it. Then came the Atlantic Bar and Grill, where the Independent team was triumphant at the world's swishest pub quiz; Mash, with its early adoption of the microbrewery idea; and Isola, a departure into fine Italian dining which missed the mark.
After licking his wounds, the next phase of Peyton's career has been taking on restaurant operations within some of London's finest arts establishments, including the National Gallery, the ICA and the Wallace Collection. He might think he's an old-timer by now – but the RA makes everyone after Joshua Reynolds seem an arriviste.
It's smart to open a restaurant in its historic interior (open just to Friends of the RA in the daytime; the rest of us can cross the courtyard and enter the hallowed corridors at night).
There are two doormen in the corner of the exquisite courtyard, standing under Tracey Emin's "Keep me safe" neon. It should be renamed "Keep me in the dark", since they neither acknowledge nor direct us, and we spend a few minutes wandering up and down stairs. I feel like a frowned-upon art student late to drop off a smudgy drawing to a tutor.
The Keeper's House restaurant itself (there's also a bar, tiny garden and lounge) is an extravagant fake. In the basement, a chilly room has been dressed with stud walls clad in green baize. David Chipperfield has added the contemporary look: pale leather banquettes and modish bentwood chairs. There are some lovely touches, such as sage in vases on tables (the green works with those walls). Loveliest of all, though, is the sight of Jon Spiteri. Recently arrived at Peyton's place from Quo Vadis, he is one of the restaurant scene's warmest and most accomplished frontmen.
The jig is up after that (an extra amuse-bouche arrives, the chef comes out for a chat), but even if reviewers announce their arrival, a kitchen can't change its menu on the spot.
Nor should it, in this instance. The Keeper's House menu, complete with an arty – natch – design by Conrad Shawcross, is inviting. Peyton is a champion of British produce, and his chef Ivan Simeoli (Naples-born and trained at restaurant Massimo Bottura) has assembled an inventive array of seasonal goodies.
From starters that include venison tartare, an earthy mushroom broth, and smoked leek, Mr M has scallops with celeriac and squid juice (£12.50). The meaty molluscs are excellent, but a scattering of what look like coal crumbs turn out to be "burnt Amalfi lemons". Why go to the trouble of buying them only to incinerate them? The flavour doesn't win us over.
My starter of clay-baked potatoes that look like purple pebbles with tender artichokes, shavings of truffle and rootsy artichoke purée (£8.50) is so good I can forgive the let's-put-it-all-to-one-side presentation. It always makes me think someone forgot to add an element at the pass.
A main of poached cod, tomato consommé and sea beets (£22.50) looks a bit anaemic. It's not all that neat either, but the fish is cooked excellently and there's a rich tomato flavour in that limpid pool.
By far the best dish is my partridge with pears, hazelnut and black cabbage: generous, delicately gamey supremes with wafers of pear on top; an iron-rich leg meat sausage and terrific reduction; the cabbage in soft folds. It's the cheapest non-veggie main course at £18.50, and it's a belter.
If I said the pudding of brown-bread mousse with rosehip jelly and toasted caramel tastes like cereal that's soaked up all the milk you might think that's bad – it's not. I love the slightly malty, claggy texture and taste.
It's not cheap. But invest £90 and you can become a "Friend" of the RA and pop in any time for a good-value lunch and bar food. Like a YBA painting in an ornate gilt frame, the pairing of one of London's grandest institutions and one of its most mercurial food entrepreneurs is eye-catching.
The Keeper's House, Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, London W1, Tel: 020 7300 5881. £100 for two, with wine
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Coq au vin
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Breakfasting recently with the US Ambassador to Britain (get me!), he showed us his cupcake trick: break off the bottom, sandwich it on top, avoid frosting smudges.
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