St Alban provides convincing proof that even AA Gill can get it wrong
PUBLISHED: 10:34 09 February 2007 | UPDATED: 14:27 07 September 2010
Is it ever possible that no matter how good restaurateurs have been in the past they will be able to keep up the standard at a new venue? VICTORIA PREVER went to find out, and ended up awarding nine stars Chris Corbin and Jeremy King - the double act
Is it ever possible that no matter how good restaurateurs have been in the past they will be able to keep up the standard at a new venue? VICTORIA PREVER went to find out, and ended up awarding nine stars
Chris Corbin and Jeremy King - the double act who made high quality comfort food sexy and who brought you The Wolseley and breathed new life into The Ivy and Le Caprice - are back.
Their latest venture, St Alban, seemed a suitable place to celebrate my foodie mum and stepdad's milestone wedding anniversary.
After confirming (for the 100th time) with my aunts and uncles that we were off to SW1 and not the Hertfordshire cathedral town where my folks live, a small group of my family trotted down there with us to investigate.
Having read mixed reviews my expectations were low. That very morning, the less than charming AA Gill was polishing his hatchet after sharing his experience there in the Sunday Times. No matter, one diner's truffle is another one's toadstool and I'm big enough to make my own mind up.
On the main tourist track from Eros to Pall Mall, frosted windows and too subtle signage make the exterior easy to miss. A glass sliding door whooshes open to what appears like an airport waiting lounge.
The furniture design owes much to the Festival of Britain. Thin-legged moulded plastic chairs and long curved banquettes with bold primary coloured cushioning are well spaced and generously proportioned. Our round table was perfect for eight. Walls are slate or shiny, white painted with thin outlines of food related motifs and household items in the same bold colours as the seating.
Fortunately, the ambience doesn't reflect the menu - as a return to food of the 1950s would have been less than welcome. Described on the website as "contemporary European", chef Francesco Mazzei has actually marched right down through the continent, to Italy and kept going until the Med. It's pleasingly un-messed about with and the portions are generous. On the table were dishes of golden peppery olive oil and olive wood bowls filled with a mixture of Italian breads (baked on site) including some excellent fennel seed grissini and some bright green, fat, cardamom-spiced Puglian olives. There was also a carafe (resembling a sample bottle) of shelled nuts.
Left there long enough, we'd have been too full for more food. The charming maitre d' with an accent like Bruno from Strictly Come Dancing arrived with little time to spare.
Between us we covered a sizeable chunk of the menu. Winter vegetables and pearl barley soup was fresh tasting and packed with large colourful chunks of assorted veg - a meal in itself. Bruschetta oozed with (mont bru') cheese and glistened with whole roasted cherry tomatoes.
Charcoal-grilled vegetables included buxom slabs of sweet potato, aubergine, courgette, pepper and fennel - a little heavily charcoaled, but nicely seasoned. Shrimp salad tonnato got the thumbs up and - from what I could see from my side of the table - looked similarly substantial.
Perhaps because many potential diners were still away sunning themselves in the Caribbean in early January, at 2.30pm the room was only about 20 per cent full. A mixture of couples and families - no famous faces to gossip about.
The main courses arrived in decent time and were also good. Aunty Dij declared her slow roasted black Norfolk pig to have the best crackling she'd eaten. She was equally happy with the turnip tops and sweet potato mash it lay on. Chickens arrived spatchcocked, charcoal grilled, with a pile of rocket and lemon dressing. Simple food, well cooked.
My two quails were glossily burnished to bronzed St Tropez perfection and sitting on a delicious mound of sweet, sticky butternut squash and pistachio nuts. Aunty Milly found her risotto - which apparently contained 10 different types of wild mushroom - to be insufficiently mushroomy.
Only Grumpy was underwhelmed with his choice. A smallish piece of chargrilled salmon under a pile of unexciting smooth salsa verde. He'd had better fish the week before and for half the price.
Before dessert, I visited the toilets, which one uncle had described as a bit "Buck Rogers" - individual booths with automatic flushing toilets and high tech décor. The illuminated shaving mirrors were a mistake - I'd rather not see my face in that much detail... ever... especially during lunch.
Desserts took a while - perhaps while the kitchen piped "Happy Anniversary" on a plate for the happy couple. The gorgeous (salted) honey ice-cream served with a poached pear was stunningly good and almost caused a fight as it was on Grumpy's plate, not mine. My white chocolate mousse Seville was far from chocolatey. Rhubarb tart with pomegranate sorbet was extremely pink but well received by the two uncles who ordered it.
Coffee arrived in art deco styled and very tactile pots - apparently designed for the restaurant. Dishes of tiny macaroons filled with chocolate and wrapped in brightly coloured paper were quickly emptied.
The wine list stays with the European theme, excluding all New World wines and concentrating on Spain, Italy and France. With bottles ranging from £16 to £195, all budgets are catered for. At £60 a head for three (substantial) courses, wine and coffee it's not cheap, but the immaculate service and well-cooked honest food made our celebration a special one.
While the jury's definitely out over the slightly harsh modern - but not unpleasant - décor, Corbin and King seem to have another West End hit on their hands. When someone else is paying or I've another reason to push the boat out, I'll definitely rush back.
St Alban, Rex House 4-12 Lower Regent Street, SW1.
Telephone 020 7499 8558
Food: Four stars
Service: Five stars
Opening hours: Monday to Saturday Sunday
Cost: A three-course lunch with wine and coffee is £60 per head.
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