Any regular readers of restaurant reviews in recent months are unlikely to have been able to avoid a glowing appraisal of Arbutus, in Frith Street in the heart of London's West End. One exception was arch-cynic Matthew Norman in the Guardian (how those previous five words must pain long-term Telegraph readers - "Stella" magazine, what were they thinking of in the Canary Wharf tower?), who said it left him cold, or words to that effect. And after a pre-theatre trip last week, I find myself agreeing with him.
We arrived right on 6.30, our table time, and met up with two friends who had happily sat in the restaurant's bar area (also laid up for dinner) for about ten minutes. My initial reaction of "I booked a table, not a bar stool" were quickly assuaged as we were led through the premises to the starkly decorated main dining area. Already largely full with other pre-threatre diners, the white paint-dark wood decor, long bench and militarily aligned tables provide a conveyor belt feel. For me they also bought back memories of our dreadful "Club Gascon experience", where the French couple's ashtray on the next table could have comfortably doubled as a home for my olive stones. The only time I've had smoked sorbet...
I'm a bit loathed to judge Arbutus purely on it's pre-theatre, but then, if they can't get that right, what chance the more complex dishes on the a la carte? Two choices at each course is fair enough, though if one of the starters is gazpacho, it's a fair bet they might run out of the other at some point. "The other" was a rabbit terrine, a splendidly intense concoction which turned out to be the highlight of the meal. The gazpacho provided the "oh my god what have I ordered" moment of the evening, when Nicola was presented with a small pile of finely chopped salad vegetables in the middle of a soup bowl, the soup following shortly in a flask for you to pour yourself, in the kind of pretentious way so many of London's restaurants specialise in. I was given a flask like that in hospital once...the soup itself was pleasant, without ever making you think "so that's how I should have made it".
So to mains. Nicola's pollock with dauphinoise and minted pea was simple, perfectly executed and enjoyable. The "slow-cooked lamb" was none of these. Neither was it slow-cooked. The joys of succulent concentrated meat flavours I was craving were replaced with a pallid, and sinewy pan-fried offering, almost raw in places. Could have sent it back, but decided against due to the time pressure of pre-theatre. Could have done with a decent serving of vegetables, too.
Desserts yet again managed to scale the heights and plumb the depths in equal measure. The pannacotta was close to perfect. "Cheeses" were the other option. Like a mug, I chose it, largely based on the plurality of the word and because I could see the names of 3 cheeses on the a la carte. What I received was a disgrace. ONE slice of cheese, 25x50x5mm, a tiny blob of chutney and a few poncily arranged salad leaves and fine slices of Granny Smith. Scandalous. What is it about (London) restaurants and cheese, anyway? How many times do you see cheese available as an extra course on a menu for a ludicrous price? Far too frequently. Eight quid for a few slivers, or whatever. It's not as though we're still living in the dark days of the 70s and 80s, when cheddar tasted like plastic slime and Edam was a treat. Good cheese is everywhere, and every cheese-lover knows how much it costs. Even at Neal's Yard, the stratospheric end of the market, 20 quid buys you a lot of good cheese. Chuck in trade discounts, economies of scale and the fact that the dish can be put together by the kid on youth training, and the extent of the rip-off becomes clear. So stop taking the piss and give me my cheese!!
So all told, we left Arbutus with a sense of disappointment, while accepting it's not that far away from being a really good restaurant. The pre-theatre was, after all, only £17.50 a head, and they do have an excellent, innovative approach to serving wine. A good range is available not only by the glass and bottle, but also by the 250ml carafe - even the good stuff! Both our South African Chenin Blanc and Portuguese Douro were faultless examples of type. But I can't end on a positive...if I tell a restaurant doing pre-theatre I have 8 o'clock tickets, I expect a bit of urgency to ensure I get there on time. Arbutus's staff provided none (service 12.5%, naturally....). There's too much competition on the restaurant scene for it to get a second chance.