Eating Out

Disdain on a plate

Enduring pale, greasy salmon in the spiritual home of the trout pout

This article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Years ago I worked as an assistant for a woman in Belgravia. Between other indignities, I had to fetch her lunch from Elizabeth Street, four iced buns from which she would then lick the icing, handing me back a little tower of saliva-smeared pastries.

I disposed of them on the balcony, thinking it might make a change for the pigeons from the coke wraps. Eventually she accused me of treachery and sacked me, but those dusty walks through the creamy necropolis of Eaton Square inspired what I reckoned would be a brilliant business idea.

How about a restaurant that serves nothing?

How about a restaurant that serves nothing? A beautifully lit, artfully designed space with a discreet soundtrack of clattering knives and forks? Somewhere for people who hate and fear food to dispense with the excruciating pretence of actually ingesting anything? Maybe there could be a celebrity chef, a snake-hipped rockstar modelled on Marco Pierre White in his pomp, lounging in the kitchen doorway after service with an unlit Gauloise stuck in his pout? Bookings from here to eternity.

For a district which boasts one of the greatest concentrations of wealth on the planet, there’s remarkably little to eat in Belgravia. Of course there are restaurants, but in the stuccoed stretch between Sloane Square and Wilton Crescent, they are relatively scarce.

Belgravia is mooted as one of the possible sites for Dickens’s “Stucconia”, the habitat of his fraud-ulent wealth-obsessed couple the Veneerings. The new quarters west of the Park were also known as “Stuccovia”, a name which came to embody a particular strain of pretension combined with penny-pinching.

The “Londoner’s Log” in the July 1901 issue of The Cornhill Magazine features a Stuccovia diary whose writer is anxiously considering the destination of a prestigious haunch of venison: “There is much to be said for forcing the fishmonger to take it in part payment of his account.”

Stuccovia was a place where according to G.W.E Russell, “people who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing that they like”. This, in the case of Belgravia cuisine, being an offering as bland, monotonous and overpriced as its architecture.

Baker & Spice (archly known to locals as “Burglar and Vice”) opened in the heart of Stucconia, Walton Street, in 1995 and now has three branches in the heartlands of the show kitchen and the cashmere track pant; Belgravia, Chelsea and Little Venice.

My old haunt, the Elizabeth Street branch, has moved along the road slightly, but it still boasts “one of the broadest selections of salads in London”, which says pretty much all you need to know about the kitchen. It also promises a Taste of the Mediterranean — presumably that bit where the teriyaki salmon spawn. But only a pedant would object; it’s not as though anyone’s actually eating anything they slop out anyway.

The all-day brunch suggestions, mostly egg-based, looked fair enough, but since my friend and I were having a laidies’ luncheon we opted to push the salads around. I had the Bobby Bean Salad, medium sized, for eleven quid, and all I can say is I’m sorry for Bobby. My friend ordered the salmon, avocado and aubergine plate, which had those three things on it, for £22.75. Pale, greasy farmed salmon, face-pack avocado, Botoxed aubergine —collapsing mush beneath a toughened carapace. Plus some slimy chili oil. The Kickin’ Broccoli salad also featured the oil, some vaguely charred brassica flowers and very little else. “Mine’s quite tasty,” said my friend kindly. “The chili livens it up.”

The plates come out, the plates go back, and nothing much has changed except the arrangement of the swill

There are more substantial dishes — generic chicken kebab and beef lasagne, presumably for nannies and children — but Baker & Spice’s core customers are mostly emaciated, swollen-mouthed women filling the time between fillers curling forkfuls of vegetable mulch. The plates come out, the plates go back, and nothing much has changed except the arrangement of the swill.

There’s nothing unpleasant about the look of the restaurant, and Elizabeth Street on a brisk Monday lunchtime is gay and pristine, but this is food (not cooking) which manifests nothing but contempt for its customers, a contempt which one feels is fully returned. Despite the allure of the stacked pains au chocolat and cinnamon whirls, the only food really being served up here is for the therapist’s couch.

Baker & Spice is a deeply anxious restaurant, but it’s curiously honest. I serve you something you feel obliged to pretend you want, you give it back to me untouched, I overcharge you for the privilege. It’s amazing how much disdain you can create with a few elderly croissants and a spiralized courgette.

Neurosis in other forms is catered for in the short wine list, which is much nicer than the rest of the menu. The prices remain silly, but we enjoyed a glass of peachy pink Minuty Rose and one of The Guv’nor red to keep out the cold, two of seven choices on the menu (a wider range is available behind the counter). Essentially though, this is the Stuccovia fishmonger’s revenge, so I regret that I didn’t launch my no-food concept earlier — it was a great idea, but Baker & Spice got there first.

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