Friday, 20 January 2012

The Square

Many of London’s best restaurants can be experienced for significantly cheaper and easier than you might initially expect, if you are willing to be patient and flexible. Set menus at time slots slightly outside of ideal, weekday lunches, and the now ubiquitous voucher/deal websites (of which Toptable is still the best) can all have you eating incredible food for not really that much more than a hearty feed at Pizza Express. Similarly it is pretty easy to get into these places - Friday and Saturday evening should be reserved for drinking anyway, so rock up on Tuesday lunchtime and any restaurant in the city will beg for your business.
        One area of London that has largely bucked this trend is Mayfair, its locals all in the same tax bracket as Bruce Wayne and Mr. Burns and thus not in need of discount dining.  But having wanted to eat at The Square in Mayfair for some time, I did the best I could and booked a table for lunch - 3 courses for £35. This is still pretty steep and more than I would normally want to stretch to, but as we managed a good time on a Saturday, and it has had 2 Michelin stars now for nearly 20 years, I thought it was a good shout.
         The recent trend towards the casual in higher end restaurants has been great, creating a more accessible experience, but a bit of formality every now and then can be very nice indeed. The Square certainly falls into this category, with a few neat if unnecessary touches (they replaced the butter for our bread when we were barely halfway through it, somewhat of a waste you might think) leaving you feeling a touch over-staffed, though not necessarily in a bad way. A full restaurant, it was still rather hushed and all too civilised, an atmosphere accurately reflected in the food, which (aside from possibly my favourite freebie starter ever) was elegant, technically sound and generally delicious, but was without any real flare or wow factor.
         After the aforementioned freebie, a foie gras bavarois with raisin puree and a parmesan biscuit, wildly contrasting but equally good starters arrived. A salmon and crab dish with clementine was fresh and clean, while my lamb ravioli with turnips was rich, unctuous, salty and moreish.  After such a good start the mains were less successful. My fiancĂ©s ox cheek with Jerusalem artichoke puree was the better of the two, meaty and soft with deeply savoury pearl barley, classic northern European fare which was good eating, just a little predictable. My seam bream with winter minestrone was well cooked and accurately seasoned, but in a deep broth the fish was unable to shine, and the whole thing needed an edge, something sour or sweet to lift it from the one dimension to something more memorable. In a restaurant of French heritage, the deserts should be good and they were – a mountainous tarte tatin with cinnamon ice cream was sticky and crisp and all the other adjectives it should be. My rhubarb soufflĂ© with brillat-savarin ice cream reminded me why I love them – sweet and fluffy, hot wobbly filling meeting smooth, cold ice cream – I would return for this alone.

      The waiter struggled to remember all 5 of the beers they had available (most places like this do) but eventually I settled on a Meteor, a French pilsner, and a something called Page 24, a blonde from Belgium. Both were rather forgettable, but were light, refreshing and pleasant enough for lunch, and I would drink the Meteor again given the option.
          Leaving the restaurant my partner and I were thoroughly sated, and had enjoyed the almost all aspects of the meal. The level of cooking here is high, and this is obvious in every dish, making the £95 bill for lunch well worth the experience. However I would struggle to find a reason to come back – perhaps a celebration with gastronomically conservative relatives, or a quiet business lunch to seal the deal. For my taste it was too often classic not contemporary, interesting not innovative. Although everything was good, at this price there is more bang to be had for your buck elsewhere (such as Hibiscus down the road), and you are entitled to expect more vivid memories of the food than I find myself having now. As a local eatery for the enviously rich living in the area, ideal. As a one-off London treat, take a risk and look for more adventurous menus outside of Mayfair where there are deals to be had and chefs looking to impress.