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A Second Chance For The Chiswell Street Dining Rooms

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I had a decidedly mixed meal at the Chiswell Street Dining Rooms last year but two things lured me back. Firstly, it is bang next to the Barbican. Secondly, they are offering a January three course set menu at the too cute price of £20.12. So, after a disappointing show at the Barbican, we headed round the corner for what turned out to be a rather disappointing dinner.

The Dining Rooms are certainly popular though; it is a big restaurant and was pretty full as we took our table at 9pm. So busy that they had run out of wine lists. Although booked in for the set menu, we were given the a la carte menu and had to ask for them to be swapped. Our waiter hadn’t heard of the set menu and had to confer with a colleague but on his return was sweetly apologetic, explaining that he’d just come back from holiday.

Our order was then taken by the manager who served us for the rest of the night. I ordered the lamb, obviously, and was told that this was off. He apologised that we hadn’t been informed of this but, although he was also charming, this is a basic mistake that is hugely irritating to the customer. Beyond that, it is alarming that a restaurant can run out of the only meat main on a set menu at 9pm on a Wednesday. Given that the set menu must be booked in advance, this is either poor orgainisation or sharp practice.

He gave me a couple of minutes to decide on an alternative (which wasn’t too hard with only three options) and then was back to finish the order. Since the menu came with two recommended wines, I asked if they came by the glass. They didn’t. So I had to ask for the wine menu which hadn’t arrived. It was a cummulative wave of small irritations which built to give the impression of a haphazard operation.

Since I thought I was being deprived of meat, I started with chicken livers and veal sweetbreads. I wonder if the kitchen were worried I’d been deprived of meat too because there was a huge amount of it in a syrupy madiera jus. Served with toaste brioche, this was a seriously intense dish and I started to flag under the size and strength of its assault. It was all a bit overwhelming to be honest and I’d’ve liked something a bit more elegant to easy me into dinner. My lamb replacement was haddock fishcake with tenderstem brocoli and buerre blanc (the latter unfortunately primarily decorative). I’m not convinced a fishcake is a restaurant dish and it certainly isn’t when the fish is as tough as this was. The menu boasts that all fish is fresh that morning from Billingsgate so God only knows what they’d done to it in the intervening period. I couldn’t finish it.

N was more successful. She thought her veloute was the perfect vehicle for the jerusalem artichoke, it is a vegetable she sometimes finds a bit unpleasant but was made “utterly delicious” by its pairing with truffle oil and ceps.

This was followed by a butternut and spinch “Wellington” with toasted almonds and a subtle, buttery cauliflower puree. N was very pleased with what she received but it was bafflingly large and violated the Trade Descriptions Act (shades of the Prince Arthur’s game fiasco here.) It is all well and good putting scare quotes round Wellington but a Wellington is something pretty specific involving mushrooms and puff pastry, you can’t just wrap a sausage of butternut squash in filo pastry. You might as well call it a “strudel” or, indeed, a “sausage”. More seriously, you can’t call something a butternut squash and spinach strudel-sausage if its two main ingredients are butternut squash and goats’ cheese. It is a good combination (nicely set off with poppy seeds in this instance) but what if you don’t like goats’ cheese? What if you are a vegan? Luckily N falls into neither of these categories but I did worry that she was going to rupture something finishing it: “It was the kind of meal I dream of eating after a long walk on a Sunday before collapsing on the sofa. It did for me.” So, in a way, it was lucky the side of fennel we ordered simply didn’t appear.

Somehow we found room for dessert. “I think I could manage a small one,” said N. “Like that double chocolate parfait.” Hmm. We both had this and it was my favourite course of the evening. N was impressed that her one contained the smallest strawberry she had ever seen but was “strangely reminded of Kellogs squares, not a great comparison and totally unfair too.” Hmm.

As we were finishing our desserts, the manager came over to apologise about the side (it had been send to a different table apparently) and offer us a complimentary glass of port or dessert wine. Having tried the Tokaji Late Harvest dessert wine before, we quickly took him up on this. Lovely, lovely stuff and he was very sweet so we left in a mellow mood. But we didn’t leave in a particularly good mood. Despite having the set menu, wine, water and service brought the bill up to knocking on £70 and it is impossible to tolerate the sheer number of basic errors for that price.

Written by Martin

19 January 2012 at 17:01

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The Chiswell Street Dining Rooms

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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.

Written by Martin

18 July 2011 at 11:58

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