In the loo of Ampéli I was caught off guard by a strange crashing and hissing sound. For a minute I thought I had broken something, or that the air-con was playing up, but then I realised it was the sound of the sea, playing from a speaker in the ceiling.
Presumably the idea is to give you a lovely relaxing holiday vibe, so you forget you are in a basement on Charlotte Street, and provide a little privacy for those who prefer their toilet noises to remain a mystery to fellow diners, but the effect is more like a psychological study.
It’s hard to escape the idea that the sounds are meant to do something to your brain, like make it not worry too much about what you’re eating.
Ampéli is a new restaurant, about two doors down from Norma, and with a not dissimilar vibe; a petite room but smart and expensive looking with green walls, a lovely wood-panelled bar and tasteful lighting.
They’re versatile enough for an ad-land business lunch as well as a weekend Grand Bouffe. Where Norma is Sicilian, Ampéli is Greek, and takes its name from the Greek word for vineyard, so the wine is a big draw.
The list comes with an introductory paragraph about how good Greek wine is now, which sounds only slightly like over-protestation, and there is a section of “Bubbles and New Age Retsina”. Ampéli, and this wine list, have won praise from several actual serious critics, and the few customers who came in while I was there in kept muttering “Fay Maschler” and “Financial Times” to the staff.
Alongside the full menu, where mains reach easily towards £30, there is a well priced, changing set lunch; £19 for two courses or £23 for three. Set lunches needn’t be somewhere’s fanciest dishes, but they ought to be competitive: these should be the window displays, luring in passersby and convincing them to return for a pomposo dinner another time.
On the first visit, my friend and I shared some mezze. The only dish that sang was the whipped roe, with its garnish of pickled jalapeno and onion helping to draw out the fishiness. A heap of beetroot was dull, and so too was the aubergine, apparently smoked on a josper but without gaining any flavour.
Despite only having four mezze on the lunch menu, they had run out of the chopped liver, so we substituted it for three underwhelming manti dumplings. (Why serve two people three of anything?)
My main was a couple of wild boar sausages, where the meat wasn’t rich enough to bully its side of lentils with cabbage and preserved lemon, which it really ought to. Loukoumades, puffy doughnuts with sweet tea syrup and poppy seed custard brought things back round. Frankly, however, if you can’t get a doughnut with custard right, you should not open a restaurant on Charlotte Street.
I thought perhaps I was just being grumpy, so I went for a second lunch a week later, seeking shelter from especially un-Greek weather outside. A fish soup starter was insipid and curiously unfishy, despite chunks of what I think was monkfish, although I couldn’t swear to it and forgot to ask.
I followed it with a moussaka, as route one as Wimbledon in the Nineties, although more elegant to look at. It came as a squat round tower standing freely in a puddle of off-putting tomato sauce. The top was dusted with flakes of salt, which would have been a welcome addition to the fish soup but weren’t needed here.
This ought to be a dish of deep, homely comfort, so that if you took it down to the sea-noises loo and ate it with your eyes closed, you could imagine you were in that perfect little taverna you found that year before the kids were born, when you rented mopeds and got drunk on ouzo. Instead it was merely fine, and arrived far too slowly for a diner on his own on a weekday lunch.
I was too depressed to order pudding a second time. As at Norma, a lot of money has been spent to get Ampéli looking this smart. The wine list has been assembled with great care. There is a gap for an imaginative Greek food in central London. I don’t want to write it off altogether, because there’s no reason for it not to be good. Perhaps if you go in the evening and go a la carte it is a raucous delight. But from what I saw, there’s a warmth lacking, and it doesn’t feel very Greek at all. Looking pretty, and having the right sound effects, are not always enough.
Would I go again? No
Should you go? No
Can you take your parents? I mean, you could, but why?
Ampéli, 18 Charlotte Street, Fitzrovia, London W1T 2LZ; 020 3355 5370; ampeli.london; open daily
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies