Though he didn't coin the phrase, the idea of imperial overstretch came from Edward Gibbon's magisterial history of the Roman empire. It's pretty obvious: at the moment of maximum power, an empire goes beyond its comfort zone, sacrifices its cohesion and eventually crumbles. In The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, the historian Paul Kennedy applied this idea to many of history's empires – and found that it holds.
Modern chefs create their own empires, whose rapid expansion is fuelled by several factors: the ever-more central place of food in our culture; the astonishing resilience of British restaurants through a recession; and the rise of the celebrity chef. But empires being what they are, these giants of gastronomy are susceptible to overstretch. I hope that Tredwell's by Marcus Wareing proves a huge success, but it feels like a punt too far.
Wareing is unquestionably one of the greatest chefs of his generation. I took my wife to his restaurant at the Berkeley years ago, when she finished her PhD, and it was perhaps the best meal I've had in London. But where that signature venue is upmarket, delicate and indulgent, Tredwell's is procedural, functional and generic.
Named after the butler in Agatha Christie's novel The Seven Dials Mystery, it's elegant and quite affordable, with a short menu. Of the "Pots & Jars", my mate Af and I have chorizo jam with charred bread (£4) and beetroot hummus with flat bread (£4). Both come with exactly the same kind of bread, which is baffling; and the nduja-like jam lacks flavour. So does the beetroot, which is drowning in oil.
Under "Small Plates" comes a better selection. The pulled pork belly, ginger and apple slider is a delicious, hot, greasy, tender burger bite for just £2.50. The slow-cooked salmon with spirulina and cauliflower (£7) is even more moreish and a little healthier, with a firm bit of fish set next to a crunchy vegetable.
Under "Small Bowls" are a couple of mediocre offerings, however. The chipotle-marinated chicken wings (£5) are cold and slime-covered; the courgette and ricotta fritters (£5) in a batter much too heavy, especially when covered in pine-nut butter; and the warm baked beets with goat's cheese and walnuts (£6) aren't warm and don't have enough goat's cheese. There's nothing wrong with the walnuts, except for their absence.
"Grills & Fish" are the most substantial offerings, and again here there are hits as well as misses. The latter includes a nondescript braised lamb belly with aubergine and tomato curry (£10), wherein the lamb hasn't been braised for long enough, and the rest of the dish tastes more like a bland caponata than either a sizzling or a subtle curry. Much better is the grilled squid served with courgette, peppers and bottarga (salted, dried tuna). The kale 'slaw and sweet-potato fries with barbecue mayo are both perfectly edible, and actually generously served given they're £4.
I don't know about you, but I quite often find that when I keep ordering things on a menu and feel let down by them, rather than order less, I order more in the hope of finding a gem amid the mud. Usually the desserts menu becomes a depository of these hopes, and in Tredwell's it's no different. So I plump for something called warm chocolate, fig, and chocolate cornflakes (£6) – and it just doesn't work. The figs are drowned out by a thick hot-chocolate mixture that is granular and too sweet. A coconut mousse with pineapple, mint and lime is at least fresh and refreshing.
In one sense, Wareing embodies the extraordinary gastronomic moment we are living through. Trained with the best of them, technically exceptional, boasting a restaurant in his own name, and now – of course – given the blessing of television producers, with his starring role on MasterChef: The Professionals, he is the best of British. I am hopeful that, though he has already given the restaurant scene so much, Tredwell's will give it something more: a sense of humility, a knowledge of limits.
If you go to Tredwell's, you will have passable food at an affordable price in pleasant surroundings. But it won't feel special, as I believe any restaurant should. It will feel that you're on a cultural and corporate treadmill – and you may want to get off.
Tredwell's, 4a Upper St Martin's Lane, London, WC2. Tel : 020 3764 0840. £90 for two, with drinks
Four more foodie notes from the past week
At Aubaine in Kensington, five minutes from our office, I had an atrocious concoction: cold, soggy, and bland.
Tried some for the first time this week. You either love it or hate it, or hate it so much you want to spit it out instinctively. That’s me.
They’ve got these cereal bars in the work canteen. Quite tasty, but the idea that they’re health foods is strictly for the birds.
I drink an obscene amount of fizzy water. The addition of this stuff makes it delicious, aromatic and sweet.