The long, boozy lunch may no longer be a part of media culture, but you'd never know it from all the new restaurants opening in Soho. Just when it seemed that chain cafés and bars would choke the life out of London's creative heartland, the place has been revived by an infusion of exciting, independently-owned new openings.
In the last year alone we've welcomed Polpo, Hix, and the Dean Street Townhouse, all fine restaurants with a dash of Soho attitude. Casual lunchers can enjoy ubon noodles at Koya, kebabs at Yalla Yalla, or join the queue for pizza at Princi, Alan Yau's new-generation deli/diner, so thronged with creative types at lunchtime, it's like The Ivy with a takeaway salad bar.
Newly arrived on the Soho strip, at the upper end of the market, is Gauthier Soho. Chef-proprietor Alexis Gauthier won a Michelin star at Roussillon, in patrician Pimlico. Now he has taken over the narrow Georgian townhouse which until last year held Richard Corrigan's Lindsay House. The new team could be forgiven for being nervous; they must feel as vulnerable as a new girlfriend meeting her chap's friends, painfully aware that she is being compared with a much-loved ex.
If Alexis Gauthier has fashioned the new restaurant after his own image, it's very hard to tell what he might be like. It's as though a team of forensic experts has been through the place, meticulously eliminating any clues. Good restaurants take on the personalities of their owners; certainly The Lindsay House did. Gauthier, white of wall and grey of carpet, feels like a ghost restaurant by comparison, the small downstairs dining room as pale and featureless as a Rachel Whiteread artwork.
Waiting for my friend on a hot mid-week lunchtime, I spent what felt like an eternity alone in this empty space, gazing out over the sweltering, shirtless Soho streets like an imprisoned nun. Eventually the doorbell rang (new arrivals must follow this time-honoured Soho tradition).
My guest, the comedian and screenwriter David Baddiel, couldn't immediately get the hang of the restaurant's blend of domesticity and grandeur. "It's like a Harley Street doctor's waiting room," was his reaction to the downstairs dining room. (There's another, equally small room on the floor above.)
Neither of us ever visited Roussillon under Gauthier's watch. But we both liked the look of his menu here – spring-like and inventive, offering lots of vegetarian options, and, at £25 for three courses, very reasonably priced.
For that, all manner of little extras are thrown in; exhaustingly so, in the case of the bread selection, which offers around six different varieties, with salted and unsalted butter, plus two varieties of olive oil, to choose from. "You pay to have those kind of decisions taken away from you," as David observed.
The meal began with complimentary pre-starters. First, some dull chickpea beignets, with an acidic mustard emulsion for dipping, then, more promisingly, a tiny, confited pigeon leg with a thimbleful of sautéed broad beans.
The delicacy of Gauthier's cooking asserted itself in our starters. David's seared scallops with lime, celery and a crustacean velouté were precisely cooked; my spring truffle risotto, creamy but still with a bit of bite, was "properly truffle-y", in David's words, and topped with a glorious blanket of shaved fresh truffle.
Main courses were small – effectively tasting plates – and failed to excite; when you've ordered Angus beef, you expect more than two dainty bitefuls, however good they taste, served with spring vegetables and some earthy Jersey Royals. David's fish, a pearly slab of baked halibut fillet with white asparagus, was almost too delicate; "a bit boil-in-the-bag" was his whispered assessment.
Whispered, because never in the field of human lurking have so many hovered over so few. As the only customers in the restaurant, David and I started to feel like animals in a zoo, so relentlessly were we checked on and solicitously interrupted.
It certainly made it hard for me to catch up on David's news. His hit comedy The Infidel just opened in the US and ... no, we're fine for bread, thanks. His upcoming trip to South Africa to make World Cup podcasts with his old mucker Frank Skinner ... yes, the wine's perfect. His low-down on David Walliams' wedding ... delicious, thanks, please go away now.
My meal ended on a high, with Gauthier's signature dessert, Golden Louis XV, a shiny chocolate dome filled with chocolate mousse and meringue, and sprinkled with gold leaf. David set about the superb selection of cheeses, for which, refreshingly, no supplement is charged.
The French-accented wine list has a large selection by the glass and plenty of wines priced under £40 a bottle. Our bill, including service and a glass of wine each, came to £40 a head, which felt like a bargain, given the ritziness of the Gauthier offer. But the chef/patron's gifts as a cook don't compensate for the awkwardness and sterility of the experience. Geographically, Gauthier may be in Soho, but spiritually, it's Mayfair all the way.
Gauthier Soho, 1 Romilly Street, London W1 (020-7494 3111)
Set lunch £25 for three courses; set dinner £27 for three courses, before wine and service
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary. All service charge and tips go to the staff"
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