Four new restaurants in a week is more than most restaurant correspondents have the good fortune to get to but such is the frenzy of new openings in London – with everyone trying to staunch their cash flow with bounteous Christmas bookings – that Vinoteca, Bentley's, Brew Wharf and the absolutely awful new Grill Room in The Dorchester are just four among many.
Meals in all of these have once again revealed that passion is an integral ingredient if any new restaurant is to have character and the distinctiveness to warrant a heartfelt recommendation.
Trevor Gulliver, of St John renown and the undisputed holder of the title 'the most difficult restaurateur to understand even when sober' has brought his passion for good beer to Brew Wharf where there is an on-site micro-brewery operated by The Meantime Brewing Company of Greenwich; Richard Corrigan, of The Lindsay House, displays his passion for the recently renovated Bentley's – where he was Head Chef in the early 1990's – by helping to open the oysters and delicious cherry clams behind the bar; and Charlie Young and Brett Woonton, once of Liberty Wine, do the same at Vinoteca, their new wine bar, restaurant and wine shop directly north of Smithfield Market. By contrast, the corporate squillions which have gone into the Dorchester's Grill have sadly been horribly mis-spent – a prime example of why 'opm or 'other peoples' money' - in this case the hotel company which belongs to the Sultan of Brunei - is never a valid premise for opening a restaurant.
But in opening at this time of the year restaurateurs also invite disappointment. Suddenly, they appear on an already very stretched job market looking for swathes of staff who are less than enthusiastic about switching jobs. One of the main reasons restaurant staff enjoy the Christmas period is the money they earn from the extra tips but for those not directly affected by the service charge, mostly the kitchen staff, there is the promise of an extra bonus if they stay in their current jobs until Christmas Eve.
As a result I have already heard that the service at Marco Pierre White's new Italian restaurant, Luciano, (on the site of the former Priunier's) is pretty awful and I have also heard from somebody who has opened one of these four restaurants that finding chefs is currently incredibly difficult. After parting company with three chefs whom he considered not up to scratch within 48 hours, this particular chef contacted someone who used to work with him, only to be told that he was on a bonus of £4,500 if he stayed in his present job until Christmas. The value of your stocks and shares may go up and down but so too may the quality of the cooking and service in the run-up to Christmas.
The whole of the ground floor of Vinoteca would fit into one arch of Brew Wharf but there seems little else on the minds of its founders, Charlie Young and Brett Woonton, than giving any wine-loving customer the best possible time at pretty reasonable prices.
The wooden tables, chairs, posters and general no-nonsense approach to the wine service reminded me strongly of Willi's Wine Bar in Paris. But here a far corner is given over to shelves studded with wine bottles while a compact, open kitchen in the other corner proves that you don't need either a lot of space or meticulous equipment to deliver some very hearty and very satisfying food. We had an excellent lunch: aubergines roasted and served with a topping of goat's cheese; a plate of Spanish cured meats and almonds; a hefty stew of pork cheeks with roast potatoes that looked as though they had come straight out of the Aga; a hefty chunk of cod with olive oil mash; and a ginger pudding that was one of the very few I have eaten which didn't leave me wanting more ginger in it.
As to Vinoteca's wine list, although I am not really the best member of our family to pronounce on such matters, it has obviously been chosen with great care and enthusiasm, avoids the most obvious names and seems to offer great value for money. It is also served with the same amount of honesty. When Brett suggested a glass of red with our main course I concurred but asked that it could be under 13%. He came back a couple of minutes later rather apologetically saying that all their open reds that day were over 13%. I drank the glass of Costieres de Nimes from Mas de Bressades anyway! Any wine lover should head for Vinoteca.
Any fish lover should head for the new Bentley's which chef Richard Corrigan has opened with the financial backing of Searcy's, a company otherwise involved in running the restaurants at the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Opera House.
Together, they have done a very good job on what was a complete re-design of a most neglected old building, first opened to serve oysters and black velvet, that heady combination of Guinness and champagne, in 1916. The layout stays the same with a horseshoe oyster bar on the ground floor, divided into smoking and non-smoking, as well as some tables and the more formal restaurant plus a private room on the first floor (a larger private room will open in the basement in the New Year).
I have only eaten once at Bentley's and then only at the oyster bar but it was such fun that I am not sure whether I will venture upstairs. What makes it fun other than the décor (oyster shell lamp shades!) and the contact with the barman is the unmitigated fishiness of the menu – meat just does not feature other than in a bacon salad with the hot, crisp oysters. Lots of oysters; a Mediterranean fish soup and Thai crab and mussel soup; home cured herrings with a warm potato salad; grilled langoustines with chickpeas and olive oil; Dover sole, naturally; zander with smoked eel and pickled cabbage and a wonderfully creamy fish pie. Prices too are reasonable for what are increasingly expensive ingredients and our dinner for two [not me alas, JR] with a bottle of Grüner Veltliner came to just under £80.
The directness of approach at Brew Wharf and Vinoteca should prevent too many disappointments. The former is carved from three former arches of the Vinopolis tour which means that once you find the entrance, in a yard off Stoney Street past Monmouth Coffee, Konditoor & Cook and Wright's, a new oyster and porter restaurant, you walk into a vast, bricked space of great character albeit less intimacy. The micro-brewery is tucked away in the furthest arch with a large, open kitchen in the middle which also services Wine Wharf, Vinopolis's wine bar, on the other side.
Gulliver has modelled Brew Wharf's food on an Alsace brasserie's distinctive approach with a paper menu at each place mat that sets out their beer offer on the left – about 20 bottled beers plus six draught beers and wines by the glass; a long menu down the centre and 30-40 wines down the right hand side. There are also three or four specials of the day. Good, strong, straightforward, flavours come through in French onion soup; mussels in a creamy beer sauce; chicken and racks of beef from the rotisserie; crisp pork belly with lentils; a pint of prawns; fishcakes and frites and poached smoked haddock with bubble and squeak. Brew Wharf would be a great place for any party or group, beer lovers or otherwise.
I have only eaten once at the recently re-designed Dorchester Grill and on that occasion I was taken but I can say all too readily that I will never willingly return and never spend my own money there.
Its overall design is the most obvious turn-off. An expensive French designer has been brought in by the French MD of the hotel group which owns The Dorchester and the result is an awful tribute to the Auld Alliance, too loud even to be called kitsch. I can do no more than agree with Michael Winner for once who described the room as 'beyond vulgar' while a member of staff described it even more precisely as 'where the Mull of Kintyre meets Moulin Rouge.'
Into this awful mix the hotel's management have thrown Ollie Couillaud, the highly talented chef who made such a name for himself at La Trompette in Chiswick and Jason McAuliffe, the knowledgeable but volatile sommelier who was a long time member of the highly successful Chez Bruce team in Wandsworth. Both seem to be fish out of water.
While it would have been so correct and user-friendly for The Dorchester to modernise the interior but hold on to the traditional spirit of a Grill Room as so many other London hotels have jettisoned theirs, the management have not had the courage to do the obvious. Had they decided to do that they would probably have not been able to tempt Couillaud to join either but the result is a complete mish-mash: a huge menu that incorporates some of Couillaud's more inventive dishes alongside the trolleys of smoked salmon and beef (not very good, either) and game birds, not cooked simply and left on the bone as they should be but deconstructed and smothered in sauce.
What makes the whole experience worse is that the Grill's kitchens are in the basement – down an escalator, actually – and this transit does not do Couillaud's own dishes any good. Two of our starters, for example, including an interesting cauliflower mousse topped with black truffles, were less than hot. Service on the whole was less than snappy – pretty unforgivable in an hotel with The Dorchester's resources – and here the sheer size of the menu and the distance the food has to travel only contribute further to a less than enjoyable, and pretty expensive, experience.
Prices are high but then many of the hotel's guests are very wealthy and may not care. But it certainly does add to London's reputation for being unnecessarily expensive when a dessert menu is offered featuring traditional British desserts that are each priced at £10.50 each plus of course 12.5% service – almost £12 for a pretty ordinary sticky toffee pudding will have any self-respecting Northerner calling for the bill. And any lover of crumble should not order their titivated version which is little short of a travesty.
Wine prices follow the same pricing policy with McAuliffe telling me with some glee that during his first lunch service he had sold a bottle of Cheval Blanc 1990 for £1,200, a wine that costs around £400 a bottle when bought by the case. Don't think of The Grill as a restaurant – more a way of recycling those newfound petrodollars!
Vinoteca, Bar & Wine Shop, 7 St John Street, London EC1M 4AA, 020-7253 8786
Bentley's, 15 Swallow Street, London W1. 020-7734 4756
Brew Wharf, Brew Wharf Yard, Stoney Street, London SE1 9AD, 020-7378 6601. Closed Sunday evening
The Dorchester Grill – don't bother!