Look deep into your bread basket, for it is the crystal ball of the dining table. With it, you will be able to foresee your immediate dining future. If the bread is schlocky and plastic, or pre-cut and stale, or mean and mingy, it would be reasonable to predict that this lack of attention to detail will be apparent in the rest of your meal.
Tonight at the recently opened Hoxton Grille, the future looks stale, hard and dry. I send the future back to the kitchen and it returns as freshly sliced sourdough, with strangely melted, whippy butter on the side.
But it's not just the bread that is making me feel jumpy. There is a slightly oily smell in the air that the huge extraction fans have not been able to whisk away from the open kitchens. It smells cheap, mutters my companion. And the waiters seem to find the time-honoured actions and interactions of their jobs - pouring wine, bringing cutlery, taking orders - strange and somehow foreign.
The hotel - or as its logo would have it, urban lodge - in which The Hoxton Grille (the 'e' is just there to annoy everyone) resides, is the latest venture from Pret a Manger co-founder Sinclair Beecham. It is a terrific attempt at reinventing the boutique hotel, offering fresh thinking and minimalist, modern accommodation at sensible, untrendy prices, and it's about time that some establishment other than Barcelona's wonderful Hotel Camper deconstructed the traditional hotel into something fresh and user-friendly. Why, then, such a hackneyed old rendition of the regulation, paint-by-numbers modern British bistro as the dining option?
The restaurant side of things has been given over to the Room Restaurants group, whose establishments in Leeds, Glasgow (now departed), Manchester and Liverpool, have a good reputation for their buzzy bar scene and no-fuss dining, without any wheels in danger of being reinvented.
A large ground-floor space is fitted with leather banquettes, exposed-brick walls, inlaid wooden floors, solid dark wooden tables, and metal air-conditioning ducts, all wrapped around a glassed-in central courtyard, complete with olive tree. The modish hotel entrance, with baronial fireplaces and long, lean couches, soon segues into a long bar and an open-kitchen service counter, behind which white-jacketed chefs beaver away.
The menu is a free-for-all, listing down-home daily specials such as curry and rice, and fish pie, next to dressy classics for two (chateaubriand, halibut Newburg); snacky bits and pieces such as a Grille Burger and a croque monsieur; and half a dozen grills - or should that be grilles?
Everything feels sodden, not a word that one wants to spring to mind when talking about food. A grill-with-an-e house salad of artichoke hearts, commercial mozzarella, sunblush tomatoes and leaves (£5) is utterly drenched in a creamy Caesarish dressing that makes me want to pick it up and wring it out like a dishcloth. Even a surprisingly refined chicken liver parfait (£6), with a good bright flavour and some very nice toasted brioche on the side feels wet and squidgy. Similarly, a grilled lamb leg steak (£14) has been drowned in a dark, gloopy "provençale jus" that kills it dead, and piles of green peppers, courgettes and olives make the whole thing feel as heavy as lead.
The distinctly fishy odour that wafts over from the kitchen isn't coming from the whole grilled plaice (£14), which doesn't smell at all. Nor does it taste of much, being stolidly overcooked to the point that it looks fried, and the flesh has turned to pap. A bed of spinach beneath it oozes with watery cream. Fries (£2.95), served in today's de rigueur anodised metal beaker, are crisp and dry, but taste more of the oil in which they were cooked, than of potato.
Table setting does not appear to be a strong point. One waiter tries to pour the wine, only slowly coming to the realisation that there are no wine glasses on the table. The bottle hovers, indecisively, as if the glasses will appear of their own accord in time. Another brings main courses, but no cutlery. Upon being asked to bring cutlery, she reappears with a single knife for the entire table. And with the solid, stolid, somewhat scorched Bramley apple crumble (£5.50) that lies awash in a huge moat of flavourless custard, I am brought a knife and fork.
I must pause here and offer my thanks, yet again, for the invention of wine. On nights such as this, I feel like crying into my glass with joyful gratitude. The light, spicy red notes of Valpolicella (£29) are effectively the only fresh, clean flavours of the night.
Around me the place is pumping; as groups of six and eight occupy tables with the air of an invading army, fuelled on vodka and decibels. The Hoxton Grill-with-an-e should be a fun, fast, flexible place to eat, but something has gone horribly wrong in the kitchen, and the food is dull and heavy instead of light and fresh. I see much suffering, frustration and disappointment ahead. So I leave. s
9/20 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
The Hoxton Grille, The Hoxton Hotel, 81 Great Eastern Street, London EC2, tel: 020 7739 9111
Breakfast, lunch and dinner served daily. Around £95 for dinner for two, including wine and service
Second helpings: More restaurants in boutique hotels
Brasserie Forty 4 44 The Calls, Leeds, tel: 0113 234 3232 Easy-going modern bistro cooking is the order of the day in this buzzy brasserie, part of the converted waterfront cornmill that is boutique hotel 42 The Calls.
Ziba The Racquet Club, 5 Chapel Street, Liverpool, tel: 01512 366 676 The recently refurbished Racquet Club does it all: luxury hotel, spa and gym, squash courts and all-day restaurant that serves everything from a full English breakfast to roast grouse.
The Zetter 86-88 Clerkenwell Road, London EC1, tel: 020 7324 4455 Chef Diego Jacquet ramps up the menu at this modern Clerkenwell hotel, judging by his roast halibut with grape purée, crushed peas and dill piquillo pepper vinaigrette.
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