If it’s fine dining that you’re looking for without the pretence or hefty price tag head to Arbutus in Soho. Having been before I knew what to expect. Superb produce served by knowledgeable staff in a relaxed, contemporary setting. Modern European all over. This place has been on the scene for around six years now so I went back with my other half to see if its sparkle was still there. Little had changed in the few years since my last visit. Think creams and dark chocolates, mirrors and right angles. A diabetic engineer’s heaven. It might sound a little safe, but the decoration does in fact suit the U-shaped restaurant. However, with all that hard wood and bare wall, voices are always a little strained. A few soft touches here and there still wouldn’t go amiss. Bring back the tablecloth I say.
We weren’t going to be offered an aperitif, which was slightly strange when at the top of their menu they boast the special of the day. It was very busy, but really I’m just making excuses. Some would have left after being herded and ignored; we didn’t. Never mind, a cocktail it was not to be. What did redeem this blip was being given their wine list. There are at least fifty wines available in 750ml bottles, but all these are also available by the 250ml carafe. This is such a great way to try a selection of wines throughout the meal, and those which would otherwise be on the expensive side to order by the bottle. Something from which other restaurants could learn. Prices are very reasonable too. Mâcon Villages Domaine Roger Luquet Burgundy 2010 (£9.65 for 250ml) was medium bodied and elegant, and had a long, lemony finish. Very drinkable on its own, but it really sang with my starter of crispy pig’s head with a spinach and turnip salad (£7.95). The square mould of head meat was rich and juicy, soft and crisp in all the right places; the salad was light and acidic, which cut through the glorious fattiness of the pork. It was one of the best things I’ve eaten all year. My companion’s anaemic-looking, thinly sliced lamb belly with Middle Eastern aubergine (£6.95) was neither very modern nor particularly European, but it hit all the right notes for her with its careful spicing and attractive plating.
Could the mains raise the standard further? Yes and no. The yes was grilled piece of beef, smoked beetroot puree, with pickled turnip (£18.95) chosen by the other half. It came with a welcome surprise of creamy potato gratin. It was very thoughtful cooking, right down to the beetroot-red blush of the beef, and the meaty flavour of the shallots. It’s rare that every element works on a plate, but these really did. To stand up to such a powerful dish the Lealtanz Rioja Reserva 2005 (£13.25 for 250ml) fit the bill with its earthy, black cherry nose and jammy palate. My main of cod fillet, boneless chicken wings, pink grapefruit, ginger and honey preserve (£18.50) sounded intriguing. It looked a bit confused on the plate, and tasted fairly similar. Although everything was cooked perfectly, it felt a bit like a Michelin version of Ready Steady Cook. It was a resounding no – not today, thanks, never again.
How else to lift one’s spirits than with a chocolatey dessert? We shared a recommended soft chocolate fondant with stout ice cream (£6.95), which was less cakey and more moussey than I felt a fondant should be. The Guinness ice cream was clever, but not particularly enjoyable, neither was the fondant’s stodgy base. But the 70% Cru Virunga chocolate itself went down very well. It would have been rude not to have fully utilised their wine list, so a glass of the Jurancon Clos Thou Lapouble-Laplace 2010 (£8.75 for 125ml) accompanied. It was enjoyably light and floral, with notes of caramel and honey. We found the service helpful and friendly, but slow. Although the sparkle remains, Arbutus is less polished than it previously has been for me – I should think newer sister restaurants Wild Honey and Les Deux Salons are perhaps to blame, taking Anthony Demetre and Will Smith away from their brainchild. Whether it was the kitchen’s fault or not, food poisoning struck us down a few hours after our meal and we felt we should let Arbutus know. Again, speed let them down: an apologetic email was all we were looking for but one we only half-heartedly received after chasing them up. Nonetheless, it’s a price I’d pay again for some really great food.
Arbutus, 63-64 Frith Street, Soho
21st July 2012, £106 with service
Food: 8, Service: 6, Ambience: 7