It is not often I go to a restaurant without knowing anything whatsoever about it. When my editor suggested I reviewed a new place in Little Portland Street called RK Stanley I had neither read nor heard a word on the subject. "What is it?" I asked her. "Apparently it's a kind of..." "No, don't tell me," I stopped her. "It'll be a surprise".
First surprise was how big it was. Not far short of two hundred seats, we guessed, with a bar that runs almost the entire length of the restaurant. The style statement is strong: upholstered banquette seating in pillar box red leatherette, with fixed woo den tables; crenelated wooden walls painted khaki to look like aluminium siding, and along one side of the restaurant, a kind of tesselated 3-D tile design which, I eventually worked out, actually represented the eponymous (or should that be acronymous?) initials of the restaurant, RKS.
The whole thing feels like a giant Fifties American diner (or a Greyhound bus station, as my sister put it) and, along with the fresh bottle of ketchup on every table, and the steel salt and pepper shakers, sets up expectations that the food will besome kind of interpretation of this genre, with perhaps a British twist.
When you get the menu, this turns out to be only partly the case. A starter of smoked haddock, poached egg and mustard leaves, has the appropriate ring of glorified Cafe food (of the kind that the Quality Chophouse does so well). My friend Ivan ordered a nd enjoyed it: the fish undyed, in good nick, and only very lightly cooked, the poached egg nice and runny.
My "Plate of House savouries, cooked and cured meats, chutneys and pickles" sounded alluring, but turned out to be a rather confused platter. The meats were in short supply, whereas various vegetable items (lentils, beetroot, mushrooms) abounded. The one thing I liked was a little round of toast topped with a mixture of finely diced ham in a parsley and mustard mayonnaise. I would happily have traded the olives, roast peppers, and spicy aubergine, all of which felt both over-familar and innapropriate in the setting, for another couple of these.
Other starters on offer didn't feel quite right either: a base of "stilton cream" did not sound like a tempting way to serve up mussels - in as much as we all love mussels, and none of us was remotely tempted. And a wood pigeon salad, which I concede may well have been delicious, smacked of deja vu. My sister had Jerusalem artichoke soup, which was seasonal, British and appealing, tasted great for a couple of mouthfuls, but turned out to be so full of cream that even a Norman would have been conquered.
But it was the main course choices that we all agreed gave the restaurant something of an identity crisis. After a short list, rather slackly called Special Stanley, offering a choice of roast poussin, calves liver, or seared salmon, we come to a whole p age called "Sausages" followed by a list of seven sausage dishes, predictably subtitled "The Magnificent Seven". The presentation tempts one to conclude that RK Stanleys is, in fact, a sausage restaurant - that more or less the whole point of the enterpr ise is to celebrate the glorious possibilities of the banger. Just to hammer home the point, there is a note at the bottom of the sausage page of the menu: "All sausages made on the premises to exacting recipes using the highest quality ingredients.View ing of the production areas welcome by appointment". In the circumstances, it seems churlish to order anything other than a sausage. One is no more trustful of the seared salmon, or the roast poussin, than one would be of the ubiquitous steak optionin a seafood restaurant.
We all succumbed to this feeling, and it was sausages all round. And as sausages go, they were all pretty good. My sister had a game sausage, which to its credit smelled as high as any pheasant I have encountered: it was gamey and junipery and went down well. Ivan had a Bratwurst, in which sage and nutmeg are the main flavourings, and he liked his too. My sausage, which was RKS's regular banger, came as part of a dish called Desperate Stan, which included an enormous knuckle of bacon glazed with sugar a nd mustard, pease pudding (ie yellow split pea puree), choucroute and mash. This would have been a pretty fine trencherman's treat but for one thing: the complete absence of salt in the mash, the pease pudding, and the sausage. (The chef might counter th at the saltiness of the bacon will make amends: not sufficiently - you need a bit of salt to start with to make pease pudding and mash taste of anything at all).
Apart from the sausages, the two best things about RK Stanley's, incidentally, are the beer list, and the puddings. Over a dozen Keg ales, including a number of RKS's own, are complemented by a staggering range of bottled beers from all over the world. I 'm no expert, but dabbling with this list is great fun for both beer heads and the unitiated: try RKS's own weisbier for starters. Pud- wise, chocolate burnt cream is dark and silky enough to satisfy anyone's craving for cocoa, and Lavender rice pudding with creme fraiche sorbet and mint syrup is a surprisingly sucessful explosion of flavours and textures, with perfect, sloppy, creamy rice pudding at the centre of it all.
Over these super puds we talked about the sausage thing, and all agreed it was a big mistake - not least because these kind of fancy sausages are now so widely available, and so easily cooked at home. It all seems a bit of a shame; RKS has been thoughtfu lly designed, looks smart and ready for action, and is simply begging to be filled with a noisy and appreciative crowd. If it succeeds in finding its constituency, and consequently its buzz, it could become a reliably fun place to go. The beer list alone may do it for some, but the menu certainly doesn't do it for me. There is a great opportunity here to offer a fun, original and good value menu that fits the feel of the place, and some of the dishes currently on the menu (including the smoked haddock, and even the odd banger) could be a part of that. But at the moment that opportunity is being squandered by somebody's tunnel vision, which has a large sausage stuck in the end where the light should be.
R K STANLEY 6 Little Portland Street, London, W1N 5AG Tel: 0171 462 0099. Open Mon-Sat noon to 3.30pm and 6-11.30. Average dinner price per person, pounds 15. Major credit cards accepted.
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