The denizens of Spitalfields in east London have been waiting a long time for The Luxe. John Torode – the Australian judge on TV's Masterchef, who closes his eyes while shouting at his fellow judge, the cockney hard-man Gregg Wallace – has been promising to open for over a year. But since he's the chap behind Smiths of Smithfield, people have been happy to wait.
Smiths was (and remains) hugely popular on several levels. Noisy City types congregated in the ground-floor bar, necking South American beer; ordinary punters ate medium-range carnivore grub at medium prices, and could look over their first-floor balcony at the howling throng below. The top floor was for "fine dining". They charged you £28 for a steak and supplied a biography of the animal it came from, emphasising its life spent gambolling across Sussex meadows. So great things are expected of Torode's new gaff.
The Luxe is on the site of the old Spitz venue, hard by Spitalfields Market which used to be extremely groovy and has become tidied-up and dispirited. It's another enterprise on three levels. The ground floor is a busy, whizzy, no-nonsense, café-plus, lazy-brunch kinda place, with cute silver-painted chairs, ketchup on the tables and a patio outside. Its cheap all-day breakfast sounds immense. Downstairs is a basement bar and dancefloor for nighthawks (they're welcome to it) while the first floor is the domain of the cuisinal talent.
It's a curious L-shaped structure: one wall is covered in hand-painted birds and trees to compensate for the fact that the tables are frankly gloomy. The other wall, at right angles, is home to the marble kitchen, where the cooks can be watched at work, prepping and slicing and mashing. A dozen dangling silver lamps make up the footlights to this very flamboyant chef's theatre. Elsewhere, exposed brickwork, wooden floors and Dutch-gabled windows, lit by the reflected kitchen fires, made the dining area a welcoming place on a rain-swept autumn day. So did the strains of Beth Rowley and Florence + the Machine on the iPod speakers.
The menu is very Anglo-Australian. It ripples with convict muscularity and rude authenticity (every other ingredient is "wood roasted"). My starter of frogs' legs and chicken shanks was a chorus line of limbs kicking across the plate in a mushroom cream sauce. They looked anaemic, as if poached rather than roasted, but tasted fine, if you like your poultry baby-soft. More interesting was the garnish of chives, chervil and flat-leaf parsley, which delivered a peremptory wallop of vinegar-tinged dressing.
My date's roast chicken broth with pelmeni (pasta parcels of chicken and garlic) was nicely seasoned and stiff with spring onions, the pasta creamily tender with plenty of crunch from bits of fennel and onion. There just wasn't very much of it. I thought of asking for more, but felt it might be too Oliver Twist for comfort.
Her main course of John Dory offered two disappointingly small fillets of tasteless white fish in a broth with cauliflower, roast garlic and parsley. Thank heavens they were accompanied by mussels and clams on the shell, which worked far more successfully on the taste buds.
I ordered the roast grouse and was told: "I think you ought to know we serve the grouse rare." This sounded like a challenge. It said: "We know – ie. Mr John Torode knows – far better than you, how grouse should be served. You will have it his way or vamoose." OK then, I thought, despite my misgivings about serving any poultry rare.
When it came, I realised why it's a controversial dish. Rare roast grouse tastes – how shall I put this? – very dark. Very earthy. Very loamy and soily and intestinal. Dark purple and livid, it tastes of death. There's a pungent whiff of the charnel house, of murdered-flesh-on-a-battlefield, about it. "I can smell the blood from here," said my companion. "Nick Cave would love it." It was a melancholy plateful; not even the cooked chestnuts and blackberry jelly could make it ingratiating or good company, though a side order of delicious champ potatoes tried its best.
For pudding we avoided the predictable poached pear and pecan pie in favour of affogato – three scoops of vanilla ice cream, over which you crumble a biscuit and up-end a cup of hot espresso. It tasted fine but won't be featuring on the Skills Display section of Masterchef any time soon.
Before leaving, I asked John Torode why he wanted his punters to eat game so rare. "I think that's how the majority of people like it," he said. I raised an eyebrow: oh yeah? "David Sexton [food critic of the London Evening Standard] was in here last week," said Torode defensively. "He said it wasn't rare enough." Jeez. What would hard-core foodies such as Torode and Sexton like – to eat a grouse that's flown into their mouths and is still alive?
The Luxe, 109 Commercial Street, London E1 (020-7101 1751)
About £100 for two, with wine
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"
Side orders: Down under
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