The St Albans branch, ready for Christmas
Eating Out

Creeping mediocrity

A dismal lunch at a chain restaurant woefully short of theatreland glamour

This article is taken from the November 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Don’t get your hopes up, this is the one in St Albans. In its heyday, the original Ivy on the edge of Covent Garden was the epitome of old-school West End glamour, but since acquiring the site in 2005, the restaurant world’s Dr Evil, Richard Caring, has merched out a further 30 establishments, scattering a bit of theatreland fairy glitter over the kind of small towns Binkie Beaumont spent his life trying to forget about.

There must be some kind of folk memory involved in the Ivy chain’s success, a residual thrill of grease-painted razzle which obtains amongst punters who couldn’t give a stuff about the original Ivy legend.

The Real Thing: The Ivy in West Street, Covent Garden

What Noel whispered to Larry, or to Kenneth Tynan, Liz Hurley snuggling up to Christopher Biggins on those storied banquettes in the glory days of the 90s — ’tis all as dust now; yet the Deco decor and spectral whiff of celebrity keeps them coming. Presumably that’s the reason, for why else would you pay thirty quid for a deep-fried cheese ball and a bowl of onion-flavoured ectoplasm?

The Ivy Brasserie in the “’istoric ’ertfordshire” cathedral city actually looks very nice. Lots of silk flowers, curvy, cushioned seating, an artfully-lit rose-panelled bar. Staff are smart and perky, apart from the poor bugger who was forced to don an outsized chef’s hat and a false moustache to star in the promotional video for the weekday “Dolce Vita” menu. Bicycling rictus-faced towards the restaurant with a laden basket of “market produce” he resembled Hercule Poirot after a month spent starving at Tring with Gertrude Lawrence.

She said they might have done the job if she was really pissed

Those shiny tomatoes and naughty zucchini are purportedly translated into a zesty two- or three- course set menu which promises to bring the authentic spirit of Italy right to your dinner plate. Again. Not that I’m one for carping; if the clients want clichés with their complimentary why not dish them out?

The menu offers two courses for £25.95 or three for £29.95 but there are plenty of sneaky mark-ups, beginning with the cicchetti, the Venetian term for little snacks which has now been thoroughly Anglicized into Italian bits with drinks.

Deirdre and I tried the arancini al tartufo, orange lumps of coagulated rice and some sort of cheese, heavily redolent of the service-station-forecourt whiff of ersatz truffle. From the menu proper, Deirdre’s calamari fritti came as another limp heap from the fryer livened up with that well-known Italian combo of lime, coriander and chili mayonnaise. She said they might have done the job if she was really pissed.

The “truffle” featured again in my starter of caramelized white onion soup with artichoke, doing its best to enliven a glabrous lump of mascarpone.

Done well, this could have been a silky, unctuous, elegant combination, the rootsy sweetness of the onion complementing slightly acidulous shards of artichoke, but the thistle’s understudy hadn’t shown and without it the soup looked and tasted as appealing as something scraped out of the sink of the chorus girls’ dressing room after a packed house at Frinton-on-Sea.

Ever the happy hoofer, the truffle gamely came on again for Deirdre’s mushroom linguine. Remember that thing restaurants did in the Noughties where the menu described what had been done to the food to cook it — “Pan-fried”, “Oven-baked”?

The kitchen tautologies appear to be making a comeback, as the wild mushroom sauce had apparently been “tossed” through the pasta. What else would you do when confronted with the challenge of putting sauce on pasta? Is “tossing” somehow more airily allegro, more authentically italiano than stirring? I’ll resist the obvious gag, which is more than Deirdre did when she tried to eat it.

There wasn’t much to say about my chicken with polenta except that the accompanying Chianti sauce at least meant that unlike practically everything else we ordered it wasn’t entirely beige.

If the point of a good restaurant is to make its clients happy, then the Ivy St Albans is a very good restaurant indeed

The set-menu offer is pushed to the limit again with a range of contorni for another fiver, including truffle and parmesan chips. I was beginning to pity the truffle. Puddings are included, though the menu suggested that we could “experience the classic Affogato experience” by ordering a liqueur at £7.50 and pouring it over some ice cream. We resisted experiencing the experience in favour of finishing our superlatively banal Sangiovese — at £28 the cheapest bottle on a short list mostly priced at around £40.

There was a very vaguely described £360 Barolo available to whatever mug would order at that price without knowing the year. The disingenuous costs were somehow even more objectionable than the sloppy franchised food. The menu is posing as a jolly, affordable weeknight supper, but its intention is to push the bill well north of £100.

Life seemed sweet to the majority of the customers, however. The place was heaving with bucket-list Instagrammers. If the point of a good restaurant is to make its clients happy, then the Ivy St Albans is a very good restaurant indeed. Waiting for the train back to town we overheard two local ladies discussing it:

“The food’s dreadful of course.”

“And so expensive.”

“I know. But such fun!”

Noel couldn’t have put it better.

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