It sounds intriguing: take the dining-room of a five-star hotel near Hyde Park Corner, give it an expensive facelift, hire an Italian chef who happens to be British, and put on a menu of simple, rustic, seasonally driven Italian fare.
And it was intriguing, in 2006, when the excellent Theo Randall at The InterContinental opened. But now, another five-star hotel near Hyde Park Corner has given its dining-room an expensive facelift, hired an Italian chef who happens to be British, etc etc. Christened Apsleys, after Apsley House across the way, it is a world apart from the sleek minimalism of Theo Randall and, indeed, the kitschy mass of potted palms and chinoiserie that marked its previous incarnation as The Conservatory.
The lavish makeover, by New York's Tihany Design, is all squishy sofas, thick carpets, and over-the-top chandeliers hanging from, um, over the top. There are geometrics, stripes and swirls, frosted glass, velvets and linen, etched glasses, gold-rimmed plates, decorative vases, fresh flowers and fancy candle-holders. It is a relief when a simple white platter of correctly cut nuggets of aged Parmigiano-Reggiano lands on the table, with a sticky reduction of balsamic vinegar. It is a relief, but also a rift in the space-time continuum (I love that phrase).
The sense of anomaly continues with a menu that lists calves' head salad, Burrata (cream-filled mozzarella) with char-grilled aubergine, wild-boar ragù and a chicken cacciatore. These down-home, tratt-friendly dishes sit incongruously next to a top-heavy, Bordeaux-loving, tratt-unfriendly wine list with little to interest under £40. Luckily, I run into an old friend, the intense and meaty 2006 Seresin Leah Pinot Noir from New Zealand, which must have slipped in the tradesman's entrance. At £40, it's the best value on the list.
Chef Nick Bell has cooked with London's most fêted Italian chef, Giorgio Locatelli, at both the Michelin-starred Zafferano and Cecconi's in Mayfair. He shares Locatelli's passion for great Italian produce, judging by a lovely, fresh salad of sweet, lightly spiced culatello (cured pork from the top of the pig's leg), tomato and zucchini (£14), served with crisp, if over-enthusiastically grilled, Sardinian flat bread.
The pasta is good too, rigorously al dente and fused with its sauce rather than drowned. Thick, hand-made bigoli noodles are coated with an emulsion of sea urchin, olive oil and chilli (£11.50) that tastes rich, sea-salty and creamy without the need for cream.
Then the meal falls into a bit of a hole. Swordfish "alla Milanese" (£21.50) is softly herb-crumbed before being grilled, which leaves it dry, mealy and slightly harsh-tasting. It's a delicate portion compared with a large platter of chicken cacciatore (£19.50), a "hunter's stew" served with grilled polenta. This is full of earthy, punchy flavours, but again it feels firm and overcooked. Dessert is a fancy moulded raspberry semifreddo (£8.50); Illy espresso coffee is excellent; and accompanying bomboloni (small, round, sugar-dusted Italian doughnuts) are warm, squidgy and moreish. Throughout, a horde of waiters has been in turn intuitive and irritating, whipping plates and glasses away like kleptomaniacs.
It is all perfectly acceptable Italian urban peasant food, in spite of tendencies to under-season and over-crumb. I just don't know why it is here, amid the fish knives, formality and fuss. Perhaps it's not them, it's me. It no longer feels right, nor particularly helpful, for me to review places like this in a world of credit crunches, job losses and general belt-tightening.
So I'm not going to. For the next three months, I'm going to hunt down the best value in the country, old and new, looking for real food at all levels with a bill of £80 or less for two. Let's just hope there are enough options out there, or this will be a very blank page.
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
Apsleys at The Lanesborough, 1 Lanesborough Place, Hyde Park Corner, London SW1, tel: 020 7259 5599. Around £125 for two, including wine and service. Lunch and dinner daily
Read Terry Durack's new column at independent.co.uk/eat
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