The Chiswell Street Dining Rooms
I am a big fan of Tom and Ed Martin’s cunningly named ETM Group and their string of excellent gastropubs. I’ve fond memories of strolling down the Lea to the Gun with the missus, family meals at the Empress and many meals with friends at the Arthur. They’ve now just launched their first proper restaurant, the Chiswell Street Dining Rooms, and, whilst I had a nice night, I’m not sure it is a place I am likely to ever view fondly. It is just next to the Barbican Centre in what used to be the Whitbread brewery and the stench of the City clings to it. On Friday night the bar was packed with baying City types and I was glad we’d had our pre-dinner drink on the roof terrace of the Barbican Lounge. It is liberally studded with private dining rooms and there is a very corporate feel to the place; when you go upstairs to the toilets you feel like you’ve ventured into a hotel. The menu is the sort of modern British food that characterises their pubs and the obvious market for Chiswell street can be seen in a price structure that does not reflect any technical ambition but rather what the clientele will pay. As a patron of their pubs, I had fifty percent off food and there is no way I would have visited otherwise.
Consider my starter of Herefordshire snail and smoked bacon pie with Guinness and mushroom sauce, optimistically priced at £9.50. Generally I welcome an attention to provenance but when this extends to snails perhaps its all gone a bit too far. These are classic pie ingredients which is another way of saying they are hardly luxury items so the price tag doesn’t obviously reflect the raw ingredients. Nor does it reflect much technical skill since, in the modern way, this is a pie only in so far as it is a small pot of sauce (“gravy”, I belive this used to be called) with a pastry lid. Should this really be fully three quarters of the price of foie gras with spiced apple brioche, candied hazelnuts and a port reduction?
The mains again demonstrated the creative pricing. I shared the 600g air dried Shorthorn Chateaubriand with green peppercorn sauce and sautéed Lovers potatoes. This was £55, the same price it was a couple of weeks ago when the same dish consisted of 800g of Chateaubriand. It came with unadvertised bearnaise sauce which does deserve a thumbs up (I’m surprised they didn’t charge for additional sauces) but the only vegetable was a sprig of watercress. Similarly fillet of cod, sautéed asparagus, shellfish ravioli and butter sauce for £19.50 contained only the carbohydrate of its lone piece of ravioli (raviolon?). Sides of brocolli and Jersey royals were good but I’d thought the days of needing to order them were behind us, they should be an indulgence not a necessity. This is a restaurant that in many ways feels old-fashioned and out of step with London’s food culture.
Where its corporate character pays dividends is in a wonderful wine list. Our budget only allowed us to graze the nursery slopes of the list but everything was excellent, particularly a bottle of Tokaji Late Harvest dessert wine. That meant a hundred pounds on booze and two hundred pounds on food between four. So it was a good job I had that discount because whilst I was happy paying £50 a head but I would not have been at all happy paying £75 a head.
As I said, a fun night with great wine and good but unexceptional food. A few things niggled but I’m conscious the restuarant is still very new. For example, both the beef and a rack of lamb had been well cooked and well rested but the plates hadn’t been heated so rapidly cooled. We also inserted a langoustine and oyster round between the courses and whilst the ability to do so was highly welcome I could have used a bit more weaponary; I’m capable of dismembering a crustacean with my hands but a pick and a cracker makes dealing with the claws a lot easier. It is the price that sticks in the throat though, particularly since there is no shortage of restaurants in London where you can eat better for less.