I feel sorry for people who have the ability do one thing exceptionally well. It must be awful to live with the ghastly weight of everyone's high expectations. Ricky Gervais has only to show his face and we wonder why we aren't doubled up laughing already. Kevin Pietersen betrays a nation if he doesn't score a century whenever he comes to the crease. Heston Blumenthal lights up a gas burner and we wait to be amazed and astounded, even if the poor chap only wants to make a cup of tea. Chris Corbin and Jeremy King announce another restaurant, and even before the doors open, the place is booked solid.
If Corbin and King are fallible, they have shown no sign of it so far, with a track record that runs from the reborn Le Caprice, The Ivy and J Sheekey (all now owned by Caprice Holdings) to the much-admired Wolseley in Piccadilly. But, as I settle in to my well-upholstered banquette table at St Alban, the most eagerly awaited new restaurant of the past 12 months, Chris Corbin arrives at the table.
"How are you?" I ask.
"Terrified," he replies.
And that's the thing, isn't it? If Gervais/Pietersen/ Blumenthal/Corbin and King aren't terrified, they won't continue to amuse/astound/amaze us. The minute they relax at the top of the mountain, they will slip and fall. C&K's success is due to a paranoid attention to detail, and a maniacally hands-on approach. Once again, the have put together an impressive team, including former Ivy general manager, Mitchell Everard, and chef Francesco Mazzei, whose involtini of calves liver captured my heart at Alan Yau's short-lived Anda in 2005.
Architects Stiff + Trevillion designed the place, with stylised murals by Michael Craig-Martin depicting everyday objects such as a sandal, a key ring, a water glass and a light bulb. No, I don't know why either. It's what he does, apparently, and it suits the low-ceilinged, low-slung dining-room with its clean-lined corporate modernity, walls of etched glass and dark slate, funky, brightly coloured banquettes, and wide-open spaces. Everyone is on show, yet the spacing means you can be private and public at the same time.
It is very un-Corbin and King, however, which must make an unsettling setting for the regulars. Just as everyone was expecting another warm, woody, moody retro-chic dining-room, they get a Scandinavian-Bondi cross that feels positively futuristic. So it's up to the menu to provide that good old comfort factor - but again, the goalposts have shifted. The food is not the usual democratic offering of prestige and nursery food but a curious mix drawn from southern Europe, mainly Italy and Spain - more culture shock for the stalwarts. So, instead of hamburgers or fish cakes, there is black Angus carpaccio, Sicilian rabbit stew, tagliata of beef, and wood-baked, salt-crusted sea bass. Where is the Mediterranean comfort food - the reinvented spag bol, the posh pizza - that we all secretly want?
The expensively fitted-out kitchen is still being run-in, judging by my olive-wood bowl of house-baked breads: sourdough, focaccia, grissini and crisp shards of carta di musica arrive, mostly over-cooked and burnt-bottomed from the wood-fired oven.
Bacalhau mantecato is a Spanish-Italian hybrid (£12.50), the salt cod purée served with red romano and green padron peppers. I find it strangely bland (under-salted or over-soaked?), and a little gluey, rather than rich and creamy. Craving pasta, I find only a tagliolini of langoustine (£16.50); fine tangles of egg pasta bathed in a rustic, rich tomato sugo. It is probably too strong for the shellfish, but I like it.
The main courses read well and look good, without setting the world on fire. Two charcoal-grilled flattened quails (£16.50) lack any sense of sizzle or scorchy bits, while slow-roasted Black Norfolk pig (£13.50) has impeccably crunchy crackling, seemingly at the expense of the slightly tight meat.
The big rave of the night is a house-made tartufo (£7.25), a ball of hazelnut-studded chocolate ice cream under a brown snowfall of bitter cocoa powder, sweetly served in a scrunchy paper wrap. Unrelentingly rich, intense and gooey, this speciality of the Calabrian town of Pizzo is set to be the chocolate dessert of 2007.
Everything else about St Alban is as you would expect. The service is silky, caring and Italianish (especially from my waiter, the impish Davide). The French/Italian/Spanish wine list is wide-ranging, cliché-free, and fairly priced. The richly dressed crowd is made up of Ivy/Wolseley habitués. The loos are luxurious. The bill is relatively high.
St Alban is obviously Corbin and King's way of mapping out a future for themselves as well as a past. The menu is fashionable, and the cooking is fine, if a bit on the bland side. It just isn't a fun place to be. I leave feeling oddly untouched, unseduced, and with a great desire to go back to The Wolseley, The Ivy or Le Caprice, to get back into the party mood. Which either proves that Corbin and King are at least human, or that I am.
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
St Alban, 4-12 Lower Regent Street, London SW1, tel: 020 7499 8558. Lunch and dinner served daily. Dinner around £130 for two, including wine and service
Second helpings: More saintly restaurants
St Martin's on the Isle Lower Town, St Martin's, Isles of Scilly, tel: 01720 422 092 Built to resemble a cluster of fishermen's cottages, this hotel in a stunning location serves up some of the best food in the Scilly Isles, including a special Scillonian lobster menu.
St John Bread & Wine 94-96 Commercial Street, London E1, tel: 020 7251 0848 The younger sibling of St John in Smithfield, this bakery, wineshop and restaurant is similarly devoted to no-nonsense, seasonally driven British cooking, from soft roes on toast to faggots and mash.
St James 30 High Street, Bushey, Hertfordshire, tel: 020 8950 2480 Named after the church opposite, St James has a devoted following of its own, with a modern European menu of chicken and ham ballotine, and best end of lamb in a herb crust.
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