The day: 14th July 2007, Lunch.
The place: 63-64 Frith Street W1S 2XS, London (020 7734 4545)
The venue: Arbutus
The food: modern French
The drinks: mostly French, good range of prices, excellent the ‘carafe’ option, normal to low mark-ups.
Back home in the UK after the long stay in Trento, we thought we’d take a little break from Italian, and try one place that had been taking the food-loving London quite by storm since its opening about a year ago: we are at Arbutus, in the heart of Soho. Here is where chef Anthony Demetre opened his ‘superior bistro’ after gaining a Michelin star at his previous upscale restaurant in Putney.
From the outside it is (nicely) unassuming.
Inside, it consists of a series of rooms in the curious shape of a horse shoe: the first room, which also has a bar section with a counter laid out for diners, suggests this place is generally heaving with customers – for why would you otherwise want to have lunch perched on a stool and facing the barman at the same price you would pay sitting more comfortably at a table? Nevertheless, when we visited this part was completely empty. All the better for us, as acoustics is not great (the long period spent Italy has not destroyed our British understatement), and with more people we suspect this might turn too noisy. The décor is minimalist and stark.
The tables were easy to measure, almost exactly two (long) sides of an A4 sheet: just enough, but more or less in line with the rest of London.
Oh, there is no tablecloth; let’s hope their savings on laundry go into their raw material bill.
A pleasant and helpful French waiter brought us bread French style: we could choose which slice to get, though….
We thought we were being quite silly in worrying, as bread starvation was what we feared in Beaune, too, where we ended up with a ‘bottomless bread plate’, which we could have replenished as often as we wished. Well, not at Arbutus, as it turned out, since once Woman had finished her slice, the bread dish was taken away for ever… see Man hoarding all his crumbs .
The menu is short but interesting. At lunch one can go either for the a la carte selection, or for a set three course lunch at £15.50, which is definitely very good value. The set meal allows you to choose between two each of starters, mains and desserts. A la carte, starters go from £5.50 of the Plum tomato gazpacho to the £9.50of either the Dorset crab salad and garlic mayonnaise, or the Squid and mackerel ‘burger’ with parsley and razor clams; mains go from the £12.95 of the red wine risotto with radicchio and taleggio cheese to the £18.95 of the Traditional Bouillabaisse (Marseille style). Puddings all go for £5.95.
Being very determinate to stay within our £100 rule, the more so in a place with no tablecloth, we opted for a set lunch and an a la carte selection.
While waiting, we discovered that beside there being no tablecloth, there were no gifts from the kitchen to keep us busy either (apart from a piece of butter, under which we had the forethought not to place our solitary slice of bread, which could then last longer…). OK, this saving too is surely put into their raw material expenses.
We began with:
– Pork porchetta with Granny Smith apple puree (set menu)
– Ravioli of oxtail with ginger and spring onions (£8.95).
Yes we know, quite an Italianate choice, but this is the slant of Chef Demetre’s mostly French cuisine (and he is British).
Now, porchetta. This is pork meat, and it is very typical from the hills around Rome (ask any Roman, they’ll tell you that the real home of porchetta is the little town of Ariccia), where Woman is from. The theory goes that a whole pig is boned, seasoned heavily with garlic, rosemary, pepper and salt, then roasted. The usual way it is eaten is as a cold chunky cut, which generally ends up between two thick slices of country bread. Demetre’s interpretation was definitely more refined. The porchetta came sliced very thinly, covered with the apple sauce and a tender watercress-like salad, with a sprinkle of grated cheese. Woman really did not want to like this very weird interpretation, but boy o boy was it good! The thin layer of apple sauce melting in the mouth with the thin (a bit fatty) slices of porchetta, very well assorted. Man enjoyed it too – though, rustic as he is, he was never able to fully come to terms with its tamed taste and bite compared with the heavily spiced and thick original version. He acknowledges with respect the chef’s interpretation, though…
As for the oxtail ravioli: the reduction was most flavoursome while very light, the filling of each of the (three only) ravioli generous indeed and chunky, the sweetish meat as intense as we would have expected, well assorted with a delectable selection of vegetables. The pasta itself was also good. An impressive dish (and if you read this blog you know we are quite spoiled on ravioli…), which would have held its own in the best of Italian restaurants (no prize for guessing our favourite in London…).
Next, our mains:
– Roast black leg of chicken with gnocchi, peas and broad beans from the set menu;
– Saddle of rabbit, shoulder cottage pie and runner beans (£14.95).
The chicken – regrettably rarely seen nowadays on fine dining menus – was fine and well cooked. Though we are not fans of creamy sauces, the one accompanying this roast was subtly and pleasantly scented with plenty of herbs. Woman found the bed of cabbage a bit too hard. Man disagreed and found them perfectly cooked. A satisfying French style dish: not ravishing, but please think of the price!
The rabbit instead was another stunner, tending to “comfort food” in the most elevated way, with buttered green beans and the potatoes from the cottage pie. It was a richer dish than the rabbit we recently had at Au Tilleul, but not heavy. The rabbit was simplicity itself, just the meat with a bit of very flavoursome innards. Very interesting in concept was the combination between the sharply flavoured rolled rabbit and the nicely presented “side” rabbit cottage pie,
with light shreds of stewed rabbit shoulder. Only criticism, the green beans were slightly too salty to Woman’s taste.
Finally, the puddings:
– Ile flottante (from the set menu).
– Morello Cherries clafoutis (£5.95)
The Ile flottante is a soft meringue (whipped sugary egg whites poached in either milk or water, or cooked ‘bain marie’) over custard: this was very good, perhaps the whites too sweet, hovering languidly over an excellent custard.
The real disappointment came with the Clafoutis, a regular home made guest on our home table. It was very rich, Wintery rather than Summery, definitely too much fat for Man, who could not regain composure after bashing his teeth against the first cherry stone: no, the cherries had not been stoned. Which, OK, may happen in Picouly‘s house (suggested reading) or our home, but you would not expect it in this kind of place, where desserts should offer pure comfort with no effort. And anyhow we had nowhere to put the stones: were we supposed to gulp them or spit them around? Man (who endures energetic recriminations from Woman when he himself does not stone the Clafoutis cherries…) still shakes his head incredulous at this bad ending after the previous masterful display. Woman was just disappointed by the calories from fat/pleasure ratio.
All in all, with a quarter (i.e. 250ml) carafe of 2005 Austrian Blauer Zeigwelt , Anton Bauer, Donauland at £9.50, a quarter carafe of 2004 Cote du Rhone Domaine de la Renjarde at £9.25, a bottle of 0.75 litre of water £2.95 and two (rather forgettable) espressos at £2.50 the total bill came at £81.06.
Are you surprised that there are no petit four with the coffee? Here must be the final bit of savings toward their raw material bill…
Service was very friendly (though not all looked as helpful as our lovely waiter, who even gave us the wine list to take away for our records). This is clearly a good haunt for food lovers thanks to the truly excellent cuisine. However, the choice of the management has clearly been to bet everything on the cuisine: the complete lack of complimentary gestures, the meanness of the bread offering, the stark atmosphere and the very basic mise en place somehow reduce the comfort of the whole experience (and those serry thtones, Man by now toothless, still grumbles). If you were to go completely a la carte it would also be noticeably more expensive, while the lunch menu is very good value, with the wine ‘carafe’ option making it even more remarkable. Not really the place to wind down and relax and be pampered then, but rather a nice venue to focus on and relish the offerings of a superior chef, whose mastery of both French and Italian cooking styles impressed us.