Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Restaurant Review: The Square, Mayfair, London

I tell you, it's not as easy as you might think to find somewhere for a fancy lunch in London on a Monday ( I know, isn't life hard sometimes?) A lot of the places on my "next time we're down there" list were closed; I suppose the quieter days are the weekend of the catering world, and fair enough. After a bit of a scout around we settled on The Square for what, with the arrival of some good news, was to be a bit of a celebratory meal. Possessed of a pair of étoilés Michelin, and sister restaurant of the completely wonderful The Ledbury, The Square is a long-time mainstay of francophile cuisine in the heart of Mayfair. Chef and co-owner Phil Howard has been on the telly a bit recently, and comes across as a very thoughtful and considered character, and a chef focused on a quite classical brand of excellence, rather than being in thrall to any particular fad. After a busy weekend of catching up with various London-based comrades we were ready and primed for a top feed.

The restaurant is reassuringly plush in a conventional kind of way. Some stonking flower arrangements fight for attention and tables are spaced well apart which is just as well as some of the silver trays on which plates are expedited around the room are almost comedically vast. We settled in with a bloody nice glass of Chartogne-Taillet Sainte Anne - we were celebrating, alright? - the toasty brioche notes of which were a cracking foil for some really top-notch sourdough.

Serious bread
Actually, both breads available were delicious studies in the fine art of the sturdy crust. We went through at least our fair share of both the sourdough and excellent seeded rolls. Unsalted butter was nice but the salted was amazing. I reckon I could happily make a meal of sourdough, salted butter and Champagne. Anyway, they didn't have a "Just Champagne and Bread" menu so we plumped for the option of a tasting of the six courses available on the set lunch which, at £60, sounded like a relatively good value way of eating a variety of great stuff, as well as seeing what the kitchen could do to zhuzh-up some of the more proletarian ingredients that tend to frequent set lunches.

A dinky little glass of oxtail jelly, topped with froths of watercress and - I think - horseradish, and some sort of panko-type crumb was very pleasant, like a posh Sunday roast in baby-food format. I pitied the sod whose job it is to chop chives as finely as that.

House Pickled Cornish Anchovies with Salmon Caviar, Dill PIckle and Anchovies on Toast.
I've recently been agonising (for these things are bloody important, you see) over whether I can tell the difference between posh anchovies - Ortiz et al - and your standard ones from the supermarkets. I fear not. The anchovies served up for the first course here were something quite else though. Seriously dense, they'd been treated to a bath in some wondrous brine from which they'd emerged tasting like a very profound rollmop. I love rollmops, and profundity too, so these were great. The supporting cast was a well-marshalled collection of salt and acid. Attractively colourful plate too, I thought.

Stuffed and Glazed Chicken Wings with Hand Cut Macaroni, Vacherin Mont D'or, Leeks and Chanterelles

Next up, something of an oddity. Chicken, leeks, mushrooms and gravy go together. Macaroni and cheese go together. But does all of this motley crue belong on the same piece of china? The Square clearly think so, as this has been on the lunch menu for a while. Unless I'm missing a reference, cheesy chicken and gravy strikes me as esoteric to say the least. The boned out chicken wing had excellent flavour, albeit that un-crisped chicken skin always feels like a chance missed, but the pasta was al dente to the point of adhering to one's dentistry, and unevenly reheated at that. Everything else on the plate was very nice, but a bit over-whelmed by the flavour and texture of the pongy Vacherin. I enjoyed eating this, and it went surprisingly well with a slightly off-dry Chenin Blanc, but still: cheesy chicken with gravy? Well I never.

Roast Dover Sole with Creamed White Polenta, Pumpkin, Chestnut and Sage
No such outlandishness in the succeeding dish, which was a very autumnal rendition of Sole. I couldn't help feel that the fish had been lost a bit among a cast of strong-willed companions, especially the meaty jus and the sage. It was a touch overdone as well. The best thing on the plate was the (hidden from view) splodge of creamed polenta, which was like a wildly savoury and completely delicious porridge.

Barbecued Leg and Braised Neck of Hebridean Lamb with Jersey Butter Potato, Savoy Cabbage, Ewe's Cheese and Rosemary
Whatever they do to lamb in the Hebrides, it works, for the next plate was a straightforward winner, the meat having great flavour. I clocked a Big Green Egg-type contraption out the back as we left which I guess takes care of the Leg, although I thought the hunk of long-cooked neck, awash with rosemary, was the prince among these proteins. Another rich jus brought things together, a leaf of chard gave a needed vegetal jolt while an insanely buttery - but also potatoey - mash sealed the deal. My only quibble would be that when you say barbecued, I'm expecting a blast of smokiness. If this was present, it was too subtle for me to pick up.

We treated ourselves to a glass each of Gevrey Chambertin to accompany this, worth mentioning if only to note the insane crystal in which they arrived. The stems were little thicker than a matchstick but the bowls were enormous. I was scared to swirl mine about in case a few quids worth of the booze evaporated away. The wine itself was interesting, as tannic a Pinot Noir as I've come across. With the lamb, it provided the meal's most epiphanal moment.

"Chef's" Cheeses
Despite the presence of a leviathan cheese trolley making its way round the room, our cheese course came plated from the kitchen. Set lunch innit. Keen's Cheddar and an aged bit of Comte was in good nick; not sure what the one in the middle was, but I liked it. Should a plate of three cheeses not include a blue? A basket of really excellent biscuits and bread came with this lot. The grapes had seeds in. How old-fashioned!

Chestnut and Quince Tart
After the palate-blasting effects of two well-aged cheeses, pud was an appropriately soothing way to bring things to a close. The Chestnut paste/creme-pat type stuff that had been piped into the pastry shell was rich, smooth and delicious. But: what we have here is basically a blind-baked pastry case (and, honestly, not a great one - it was hard, not short, and quite bland) with some stuff piped into it, with white chocolate grated over the top. Two Michelin Stars... I remember a lunch at Pied a Terre when they still had the two stars; the puds there, even on the set lunch were impressively complex, not to mention accurately delicious. Just saying.

Coffee, Caramel Marshmallow, Bergamot Caramel
A decent espresso came with some nowt-spesh petit fours. The caramel was so tart you could hardly tell it was a caramel, while the marshmallow had little more flavour than a flump. If you ask me, serious chocolate is what best ends a meal like this.

We really enjoyed lunch, it's lovely to go for the full-bollocks luxury treatment once in a while. Almost everything we ate was certainly enjoyable, and it was a very nice room in which to be parked for a couple of hours. The service had all the expected tableside formalities, but hit the right balance between attentive and intrusive. The sommelier was really nice, and super-helpful, although in truth there isn't a huge range of wines by the glass for a restaurant at this level, and I saw no mention of carafes on the list. The bill came to £227, which is, on the one hand, an obscene shit-load of cash, but on the other not too bad for what we ate and drank. These things are ridiculously relative.

There were a few niggles with the cooking of some of the dishes, and on the whole I think I expected more precise, pristine flavours. Everything was very nice, but a lot of it no more than that. I'd be happy to take some of the rap for this, as over the preceeding weekend I had treat my palate like a no-good scoundrel, subjecting it to a diet of abrasive booze and more than the odd tab, but Kasia felt pretty much the same. Perhaps the fireworks are to be found among the truly luxe ingredients of the main tasting menu, or perhaps we caught them operating a bit below what they normally turn out.

The room at The Square is all muted and comforting beiges and browns, punctured by riotous blasts of colour by way of the abstract paintings that hang above the diners. As much as this was an accomplished meal in plush surrounds, I think I had hoped that the food would have more in common with the paintings than the furnishings.


The Square, 6-10 Bruton Street, Mayfair, London, W1J 6PU
020 7495 7100


The Square on Urbanspoon

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