Miserable minimalism

Lisa Hilton says a prime spot near the kitchen is no compensation for a bewilderingly bad evening

Eating Out

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

Why are people still doing open kitchens? Time was (about two decades ago) that smart restaurants dispensed with the fussy division of staff and diners to create more open, convivial spaces, where customers could watch the brigade at work.

It was supposed to feel fresh, democratic, intimate; breaking down the walls between servers and served, but the open kitchen truly reflected the age of the swagger chef, when Marco, Gordon, Jamie et al were never off the telly and a seat at the kitchen table gave one a chance to be sprinkled with a little bit of stardust. Now it just means that you’re paying upwards of £200 a pop to have dinner in a joint which has copied its aesthetic template from Burger King.

Over in the kitchen, the staff avoided our eyes

It’s a shame that no-one told Adam Handling that the open kitchen thing was Beyond Over when he opened at the Belmond Cadogan Hotel in 2019. Had the restaurant and the bar not been connected by the vast blob of white marble which frames the kitchen there might have been change left over for some decent tables.

We were ushered to a prime spot: my friend Deirdre could look straight at the staff’s gritted orthodontics and I had a nice view of the faux-wood laminate and a serving trolley adorned with a few half-empty bottles.

Handling has also gone for fake-folksy on the menu, eschewing elaborate description for the blunt list of ingredients “Crab, avocado, dill”, “Lamb, courgette, basil”, which caused such a knowing sensation when Adrià introduced it at El Bulli a lifetime ago. I began with “Lobster, tomato, curry”, which indeed had some small chunks of lobster in a thin juice whose flavour vaguely recalled coronation chicken.

Deirdre’s duck turned out to be a take on rillettes, a thick burger of meat with a neat titfer of bright, grated pistachio nuts, dense and fridge-toughened. She was still struggling with it by the time a waiter wafted over to remove our aperitif glasses.

“Chicken, artichoke, hazelnut, girolle” at £55 for two to share was our main course. Handling was phoning this one in, in a manner which would make Dominic Raab blush. Dry, overcooked chicken served in two portions of breast and a slimy lollipop of wing was accompanied by a supererogatory third plate where the rest of the chicken loitered dolefully on half a supermarket salad bag. Maybe there were some hazelnuts and girolles hidden beneath the leaves. Over in the kitchen, the staff avoided our eyes. We spared their feelings and skipped pudding.

The chicken and lobster assemblies feature on the £85 tasting menu, with wine pairing at another £60 and a £10 supplement for truffles on an introductory cheese doughnut. These are serious prices, for which one might reasonably expect a concomitant level of service.

No one except me wants to be fawned over nowadays but if you want to persuade me that my handbag is important enough to require its own footstool then clearing the table in a timely fashion might be a start.

Staff were perfectly pleasant, but there was a lot of aimless wandering around, and whilst I’m more than happy to pour my own wine I don’t expect to have to get up and walk round the room to reach it.

Handling is an accomplished chef who began his career at the esteemed Gleneagles hotel and went on to win Scottish Chef of the Year and GQ Restaurateur of the Year 2020 amongst other accolades — in the year they were all shut.

The Handling group has a variety of apparently successful venues in London and proved admirably committed to eliminating food waste with the opening of the Ugly Butterfly near the Cadogan which uses up the rejects from the ritzier big-sister establishment.

There is simply no excuse for serving food this poor at this kind of cost

It would be too obvious to suggest they had accidentally inverted their deliveries the night we dined there, but our evening was bewilderingly horrible. There is simply no excuse for serving food this poor at this kind of cost, and the opportunity for a squint at where the magic doesn’t happen is no compensation.

According to Handling, the four pillars of a good restaurant are food, drink, art and music. There wasn’t any music, and the more than decent wine list only serves to expose the pathetic aspirations of the cooking further, so that leaves the art.

Unless we were participating in an immersive installation titled Brass Neck, the cultural element of the proceedings was represented by several acrylic canvases which could well have been knocked up by the fitters who did the extractor fans. The one nearest to me showed a luridly-coloured female figure reading a book, which in case we’d missed the point was emblazoned with the name “Oscar Wilde”. For this is, after all, the Cadogan Hotel.

How many of the diners knew or cared that this was the location for the downfall of England’s most notorious dandy is moot, but had Handling been in charge back in Bosie’s day, the catering at Reading Gaol might have come as a relief.

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