These days, I find that clients often want to be taken somewhere less formal, more relaxed; a place you might simply order a main course without feeling the pressure to go the full nine yards, especially at lunchtime.
On a rare foray into the City, I thought that Blixen might fit the bill for such a lunch. Right in the heart of Spitalfields market, with its slightly rickety-looking conservatory, it seems inviting and a first look at its menu is promising.
All things to all people, it bills itself as a Restaurant–Bar-Café-Garden-Private dining-All Day- Breakfast-Lunch-Dinner–Cocktails venue. Nothing if not ambitious, on its website it also bears the legend “the fun starts here”. I’m not sure where the fun was actually taking place on the day that I went, but I didn’t see much evidence of it.
An adequate starter of kale, beetroot and goat’s cheese was followed by an over-oily bean and chorizo stew, sloppily presented. A dish of rösti with salt beef and eggs was less rösti, more a fried potato cake, soft in the middle, not at all the anticipated crisp-fried joy. An ice-cream was full of shards of ice and cracked apart, perhaps a sign of being re-frozen after melting. The food was worse than I was expecting and I wasn’t expecting fine dining. Not, then, my first choice for casual City eating in the future, although I’m sure it’s more lively of an evening and the food has the decency to be fairly cheap.
Moving west to Fitzrovia, my more usual stamping ground, to Percy and Founders, a behemoth of a restaurant, based in what was the old Middlesex Hospital site, developed by Exemplar. The restaurant had no record of our booking but it didn’t matter as there were very few people in the cavernous, honey-coloured wood-lined space.
Trying too hard to look funky and interesting, it’s a sort of poor man’s Ham Yard, with little atmosphere. It was meant to be a “pub concept” but it is no more a pub than my firm’s boardroom, possibly less so. The chef comes from a worthy stable – Angela Hartnett’s Murano – but you wouldn’t know it from the food.
Decent bread and butter gave me hope for the future, so I was the more disappointed by my herb-marinated spatchcock chicken (£15) – a poussin, not a chicken, and gone in four bites. Don’t call it chicken if it isn’t, is my view.
Presented on a wooden board (pet hate), the small bowl of salad leaves which accompanied it was rendered inaccessible to knife and fork due to its height and girth. It was too small and you would have to spill the salad onto the plate to get at it. I didn’t risk that manoeuvre as I knew that it would go over the side of the wooden board and I was with clients. The menu is gastro–pub by numbers and not adventurous.
“Executive chef Diego Cardoso brings a wealth of experience from some of the world’s most exciting kitchens,” it says on their website. I saw nothing exciting here. Good points: you can hear yourself speak. There is plenty of space. It’s not expensive, but then again that is relative. It is fair to say that we did not give the food in this restaurant a good run for its money but having read a slew of mediocre reviews I can see that I’m not a lone voice. I wonder who it’s for and whether it can survive.
And so I head due north to my third attempt to find a brasserie of beneficence, an oasis of order and a place of plenty. Bellanger is the most recent Corbin and King venture, this time way out of their Central London comfort zone.
Bang in the middle of Islington Green this is an interesting move for this most successful of groups, a grown up, sophisticated restaurant, catering to the more mature crowd – those who do not necessarily find Black Axe Mangal an enticing proposition.
A Sunday night visit brings the pleasure of thin, crisp Tarte Flambée, which you could describe as a pizza, topped with goat’s cheese, thyme and honey. I hoover it down as delicately as I am able. I share a little copper dish containing Gratin de Ravioles de Royans, pasta pockets filled with cheese and herbs in a creamy parsley/cheese sauce. Light it ain’t, delicious it is.
Given that the emphasis is on Alsatian cooking I feel duty bound to order the Choucroute a l’Alsacienne, a rib-sticking combination of smoked pork belly, ham hock, frankfurter, ham and garlic sausage and Montbélier sausage, all served on pickled cabbage, or sauerkraut to you. I do not manage to clear my plate.
C is not enamoured of his rather solid pork chop, though it is the only duff note of what was otherwise a solid meal. A very creditable millefeuille ends the meal with a welcome carb high. Not for the first time do I feel a twinge of sadness at abandoning N1 for the culinary wasteland that is Paddington central.
City workers: one stop on the tube and you’re transported to an elegant café, where you can have a single course or a full blown splurge with waiters who make you feel you’re somewhere far more expensive. Best of three by far. Job done.