The naked restaurant

Flush from his success on TV, Jamie Oliver is trying his hand as a consultant chef. So, will he cook up a storm in the real world?
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The Restaurant At Monte's 164 Sloane Street, London SW1, tel: 020 7245 0892

The Restaurant At Monte's 164 Sloane Street, London SW1, tel: 020 7245 0892

Future anthropologists studying life in the 21st century will be in no doubt that one of our overriding obsessions was food. Where once valour or honour was the mark of a good citizen, it is now whether you can rustle up a decent penne carbonara - preferably with organic eggs - and where you got the recipe. We no longer simply want our food to fill us, we want it to entertain and tickle us, to enthral and seduce. And, most of all, to give us our heroes.

Thus Jamie Oliver's perky presence has pukka-ed and lovely-jubbly-ed its way into the nation's hearts - and if he's missed a few, it's not for lack of trying. He is pure marketing genius: the glossy River Café concept repackaged with a bit of cheeky chappie here, a bit of homely sex appeal there and stuck on a scooter.

Despite the obvious charm, Oliver is really untested so far. There are currently two types of food on offer to the hungry public. There is the smug, photo-call, TV-and-coffee-table food that sells aspirations and should on no account be put anywhere near the mouth, and real food made amid sweat and stress to the far more exacting standards of paying customers. Those chefs who can make their cuisine reach the public expectations drummed up by broadcasters are the true professionals. Which will Oliver prove to be?

His first post-River Café venture is the restaurant at Monte's, a private club and cigar store in Knightsbridge, which is open to the public only for lunch. He is billed as consultant chef - and, incidentally, as having both "a rustic and a sophisticated palate". Jamie Oliver: The Man With Two Palates. The head chef is the Australian Ben O'Donoghue, also from the River Café gene pool, and also soon to be all over your telly.

Furnished in Seventies dark brown, which is bafflingly making a comeback, the strait-laced first-floor restaurant has remarkably little character, perhaps to make way for those of its chefs. Cute salads in plant pots sitting on windowsills are the only distinctive touch, although if you go to the upstairs bar, you'll hear the very faint, plaintive cry of Ricky Martin on the Tannoy. There are tablecloths, but no flowers. Chairs are comfortable, but not overly so. Service is to the point - efficient with no frills, no extra smiles or individuality. You have only exactly what you need to have - a meal - then pay and leave. The naked restaurant.

A busy weekday lunchtime saw besuited club members cutting deals and holding meetings, with eating clearly incidental. Food is equally businesslike: well made and matching its description, but lacking the flavours that unfiddled-with ingredients are supposed to offer. In other words - ungracious though this seems - it looks exactly like food on TV and, unfortunately, tastes like it, too.

A starter of cappollacci - hand-made tortellini-like pasta - offered five balls stuffed with buffalo ricotta and pine nuts beneath an olive oil slick: perfectly respectable, but very ordinary. Fritto misto, including a salty fresh anchovy and courgette flowers in batter, was greasier than it should have been.

A main course of Sicilian fish broth was generous with its fruits of the sea, but the tomato broth was somewhat bland: it was eclipsed by the creamy brown crabmeat rouille and strong aïoli on accompanying crostini. Fish of the day - roast John Dory with herbs and organic leeks - was pleasant but plain, and worked much better after numerous squeezes of lemon and plenty of seasoning. You still could have slept through it.

Desserts are something else again. The robotic efficiency of the first two courses is banished by someone who clearly has a grudge against the world. Summer fruit crumble with lemon ice cream was violently, militantly sweet - the dessert equivalent of being Tango'd, and impossible to eat (although, in its favour, it certainly woke you up). Hot apricot tarte Tatin was drowned in a river of melted - very good, from what was left - vanilla ice cream.

With half a bottle of Pouilly-Fumé, coffee and service, this lunchtime experiment in TV dinners for two came to a heart-stopping £105. One way not to let its naked ambition bother one was a Hoyo de Monterrey du Maire cigar, sold by a charismatic smokes man and chosen from the vast collection on the ground floor. Easily the most memorable flavour of the meal.

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