Thursday, 28 April 2011
For several years a high-profile outpost of Marco Pierre White's in-name-only restaurant stable, after the turban-wearing one's departure Criterion struggled for some time to find an identity for itself and slipped from the culinary radar, sustained I would imagine by special offers and passing trade - of which, on Piccadilly Circus, there must be plenty.
Now however Criterion is seeking to assert its status as a serious food destination and based on the evidence of my recent visit, they certainly mean business. Membership of the Sustainable Restaurant Association asserts their eco-credentials and all the favourite foodie buzzwords - local, seasonal, organic - are present and correct on a menu which majors in best of British with some high-falutin' fine dining touches. Served in what is indisputably one of London's most spectacular dining rooms, a neo-Byzantine orgy of soaring mosaic ceilings embellished with more gilt than Midas' loo, it's an attractive proposition - but does it deliver?
Knowing myself well and fearing that I might be far too easily swayed by the offer of a free feed and lots of shiny surfaces, I took along my straight-talking pal Frankie who the regular reader may remember from our trip to Byron some time ago. Frankie's usual sole criterion (ho ho) for liking a menu is that it include a lot of meat and Criterion's doesn't disappoint; as a well as five cuts of Galloway beef there's pork belly, veal carpaccio and new season lamb alongside a few fish and game options. Oh, and a couple of veggie dishes thrown in for good measure if you really insist.
To start, Frankie chose pan-fried Isle of Man scallops with red pepper coulis, fennel and apple which was so prettily plated that I was almost tempted to take a picture; fortunately Criterion's well-oiled PR machine has saved me the trouble. Three fat scallops, corals on, were served on ribbons of fennel and crowned with wafer-thin slices of apple, the fruit bringing crunch and acidity and the fennel depth to complement the sweet softness of the scallops. I was just as impressed by my torchon of foie gras with pear chutney and port reduction; like the scallop dish it was a well-balanced combination of textures and flavours, and as easy on the eye as on the palate.
If our starters were elegant and pretty, our main courses were contrastingly butch and assertive. 'Dukkah spiced ‘Kezie Farm’ ostrich, beef bobotje, sautéed spinach, sweet potato' leapt off the page as the 'must order' dish, and it didn't disappoint. I love dukkah, a middle Eastern blend of herbs, nuts and spices seldom seen on western menus, and it made an exhilarating marinade for the robust gamey ostrich meat. The beef bobotje - a nod to hunky head chef Matthew Noxon's Saffa roots - was a clever choice of accompaniment; hell, serving spiced meat with spiced meat is always clever in my book.
For pudding (yes we were stuffed but c'mon, this was research) we shared a pear tarte tatin, which was extremely good, and a selection of English cheeses. Now, I'm a lover of all cheeses but especially those of our own fair Isles, so was disappointed that our waitress was only able to tell us the type rather than the name of each cheese; if you're going to trumpet your use of British produce, then surely you should know what that produce is. Fortunately, being a cheese trainspotter, I was able to identify Montgomery's Cheddar, Milleen's, Ragstone and Sparkenhoe red Leicester among the impressive, generous selection. Naturally, we scoffed the lot.
As well as a couple of signature Criterion cocktails - made, unusually, with Benedictine, just about my favourite liqueur - we polished off a mellow, elegant bottle of 2008 Stonier Pinot Noir from an interesting, varied but be warned, pretty spendy list. And therein is the biggest criticism I have of Criterion, for there's absolutely nothing to fault about the food - a la carte prices are rather high. Most starters are around £12 and main courses almost all over £20, and while you might say that this is to be expected for the quality of the produce and cooking, there are other restaurants doing the same thing, to as good a standard, for less. If Criterion wants to attract diners away from, say, The Ivy - the food is easily as good, the attentive, formal service probably better - then some lower-priced options need to be added to the current, impressive mix.
I know, and accept, that even with Frankie there to rein in my tendency towards hyperbole, some readers will not be willing to take my assessment at face value knowing that our dinner cost only my tube fare. To them I offer this epilogue: the next evening, wholly by coincidence a friend took his young gentleman caller to Criterion for his 21st birthday and declared it one of the best meals, and indeed experiences, he'd had in any London restaurant. I'm inclined to agree; if you'll just take a leap of faith and step through those doors, I'm confident that like the Pevenseys, you'll be amazed at what you find.
Criterion Restaurant, 224 Piccadilly, Piccadilly, London W1J 9HP Tel: 020 7930 0488 http://www.criterionrestaurant.com/