Friday, 14 October 2016
Quaglino's, St James
It's fair to say that the last time I was invited to one of these all-in-one entertainment/restaurant/bar venues, it didn't go too well. Circus is (or rather was, I've never been tempted to go back for obvious reasons) a cabaret and dining joint in Covent Garden firmly aimed at bridge-and-tunnel birthdays and hen parties, where vaguely pan-Asian dishes, looking a lot better on paper than they taste in real life, are served, occasionally interrupted by an annoying thumping soundtrack and bit of half-hearted hoop-spinning. It was all a bit... tacky.
The problem is there's a fine line between a classy cabaret venue and a tacky "theme restaurant" and that difference is measured in everything from the décor to the service and yes - the food and drink. On the first measure, the décor, Quaglino's is knockout. Guests enter via a plush and glamorously-lit bar with panoramic views over the vast basement dining hall and stage. After a martini or two, you then descend a sweeping staircase to the restaurant level, where tables are sensitively individually spotlit and surround another huge central backlit bar. It's a beautiful space, and in great nick (unlike Circus), Art Deco lines and styles but with enough soft furnishings to make it feel intimate.
Then there's the service, and yes they knew I was reviewing and I shouldn't dwell too much on this but we didn't want for anything, and managed that clever thing of fussing just enough at the start when drinks and food needed ordering, then fading completely into the background once the conversation started flowing.
But I imagine most of you are here to learn about the food, and I suppose I should come straight out and say that, served without the service and trappings of this incredible space, some of Quaglino's' crowdpleasing vaguely European dishes may struggle to make themselves heard. That's not to say anything we ate wasn't enjoyable, but only that it was solid, dependable stuff, cooked competently, raised to greatness largely by virtue of the context in which it was served.
So autumn squash velouté, a rich thick broth (not very velouté-y really), cooled with chunks of goat's curd, was a decent starter, seasoned well and with texture provided by toasted pumpkin seeds, but hardly an earth-shattering arrangement of ingredients. It soon disappeared though, the bowl wiped clean with some warm house baguette.
Venison tartare with oyster emulsion was, despite my caveats, a dish that could hold its head in any context, with bags of gamey flavour and just a teasing hint of seafood in the "oyster emulsion" holding it together. I've long been of the opinion that venison makes a much better steak tartare than beef, and though I can hear the howls of protest from tartare purists already, I suspect at the back of their minds they all know I'm right as well.
I had tagliatelle with peas (lots of peas... I mean a serious amount of peas... like "we have to get rid of more of these peas or they'll go off" amount of peas) and a generous coating of black truffle, and I polished it all off quite happily. No, the pasta wasn't Padella-good but Padella don't have nice Art Deco lampshades and live entertainment do they? So there.
Confit duck leg I didn't try, but as far as I can gather it went down quite well and didn't suffer too badly from dryness that can affect this kind of thing. And don't worry, it was served with a (good) sauce, I just didn't take a picture of that. I think we also ordered fries but I didn't get a photo of those, either. Look, we were just enjoying ourselves, OK? There was a woman singing cabaret versions of modern pop songs, I was a martini down and someone had given me a very nice glass of pinot noir. That's basically all I need for a perfect evening.
Desserts were suitably friendly. I had a creme brulee which had a nice delicate crust and good creamy vanilla-speckled filling, and we also had a very decent cheeseboard with an ash-covered goat's, a very dense and salty blue and a creamy Brie (which may in fact have been Tunworth). All a good temperature. And a good portion size. All good, in fact.
You'd have to be a really sour cynical type not to be swept away with the theatre of an evening at Quaglino's, and believe me, I would have counted myself firmly in that group before my dinner there. Yes, I was invited, but had we gone and paid for it ourselves even with a martini I don't think the bill would have crept much over £50 a head; the menu we ate was £30 with a glass of fizz, something approaching a bargain for this part of town never mind somewhere with live entertainment and fancy loos. Sometimes, and I'm getting a twitch in one side at the thought of even typing this, sometimes food isn't everything, it's the whole package that matters. And there are fewer fancier packages than Quaglino's.
I was invited to Quaglino's.