For those of us, and we are many, who follow the movements of London's lively restaurant scene with the devotion of a celebrity's stalker, the last few months have offered particularly rich pickings. From former food-trucks graduating to permanent premises to world-famous chefs popping up for blink-and-you'll-miss-'em residencies in department stores, the pace and variety of new openings has been thrilling and dizzying.
Of the lot, the one that's had me most excited - which is saying something, as despite what the existence of this blog might suggest I generally don't get all that excited about new openings - is 34. By my own admission something of a Caprice Holdings fan-boy, from the moment it was announced early last year that 2011 would see the first new UK restaurant from the group since their relaunching of Scott's in 2006, I'd been looking forward to going.
Alas, delays with the lease and fit-out meant that 34's projected Autumn launch slipped back to early December, when I was being good and saving up for Christmas; by the time January, and with it the gnawing poverty and seemingly interminable wait for the new year's first pay-day that typifies that month, loomed, it felt that I would most likely have to wait as long again to actually eat at 34 as I had for it to open. But Santa must have been spreading the word about just how good a boy I'd been, because lo and behold a couple of weeks into the month an invitation came to dine at 34 as their guest; I was there as fast as you can say "Taxi to Grosvenor Square!"
(It's worth pausing here to mention that had I said "Taxi to Grosvenor Square!" I could have ended up a little lost; despite the restaurant's address being 34 Grosvenor Square, the entrance is in in fact slightly off the square on South Audley Street - just look for the bloody great flag outside).
Inside, it's an attractive room in a classic, quietly-luxurious way; those who care about such things (guilty as charged) will recognise it straight away as the work of Caprice favourite Martin Brudnizki. Pale wood panelling, leather seating the colour of Heinz Baked Beans, inoffensive modern art and cute table lamps, their cords trailing casually off the clothed tables to the wall sockets as if placed there at the last minute, combine to make for a very relaxed atmosphere - no stiff Mayfair formality here.
Steak is the focus of the modern-eclectic menu and a variety of cuts are on offer from Britain, Argentina, Australia and the US, cooked on a vast parrilla imported from Argentina and visible, from one half of the room at least, in the open kitchen. There's a selection of non-beef grills too, as well as salume, salads and caviar for those who are wealthier than they are hungry.
I can only tell you about what I ate; my host Matthew made clear early on in his precise Noel Coward-esque tones that "I do not share food; if there is anything you would like to try my darling you may order it." Intent on ordering a sizeable steak for my main course I started light with a salad of salt-baked beets, mozzarella and truffled-honey walnuts, a beautiful medley of earthy and tangy tastes and firm and pliant textures although I was surprised at how little of it there was for £13.50.
My huge steak - almost a pound of bone-in Bridge of Allan rib eye - was exceptionally good, beautifully medium-rare and full of flavour, scented but not overwhelmed by the smoke of the chargrill. I couldn't decide between Bearnaise and barbecue sauce so was offered a bit of both; both were excellent.
Side orders were great too; chips were nothing fussier than straightforward crunchy, salty French fries, while onion rings - amusingly presented like kids' stacking rings on a beautiful silver stand adorned with a cow's head - were crisp, oil-less and punchy. I was at least allowed to look at Matthew's slow-braised short ribs with horseradish; they looked lovely.
The highlight of the meal for me was dessert. In as sure a sign as any that I possibly eat out too much, I almost forewent the recommended pud of Fleur de Sel chocolate and mint bombe on the basis that I'd had a similar-sounding sweet only recently elsewhere. Persuaded by our waitress's enthusiasm for it however, I was rewarded with a gloriously OTT, almost-but-not-quite tacky plate comprising a hard chocolate sphere - dusted gold - encasing intensely-rich chocolate ice cream and perched on a bed of candied mint leaves and popping candy. Hot chocolate sauce, poured deftly over the shell from a silver jug, melted the carapace and set the candy popping in a Willy Wonka-esque bit of whimsy, and I loved it.
We drank an exceptionally nice 2008 Ridge Vineyards Lytton Springs Zinfandel from California, rich with red fruit and round on the palate, chosen for us from the list by the charming sommelier; before dinner we also polished off a couple of cocktails in the elegant bar area (complete with baby grand), as notable for how well-made they were as for the exquisite crystal glasses they were served in. Plates and cutlery, too, were gorgeous, as was every little luxurious touch from the paper seal on the pat of unsalted butter (served with wonderful bread) to individually-enveloped, mint-tipped toothpicks.
Service, from a front of house team led by Caprice stalwarts Gina Glennon (my favourite London maitre d' ever since we became pals in her Dean Street Townhouse days) and general manager Laura Montana (no relation, I'm told, to Hannah) was faultless; polite, relaxed, knowledgable and unstuffy. Everyone around us - staff and customers alike - appeared to be having jolly good fun, as indeed were we.
Try as I might to find fault with 34 - and I accepted the invitation to dinner only with the caveat that I would say exactly what I thought of the place for good or ill - the only thing I didn't love about it was that the design felt a little Brudnizki-by-numbers, but no-one who eats out a normal amount will notice that so it's hardly a flaw. I couldn't even criticise it for being expensive; there are starters on the menu for £6.50, mains from under £15, and the cheapest steak is nineteen quid, a price that wouldn't even raise a murmur in a gastropub.
There's nothing particularly 'now' about 34; the area's not edgy, the menu's familiar fare, the decor's unadventurous, bookings are taken and the live pianist is from a whole other era. Neophiles will hate it, but for exactly that reason it has 'instant classic' written all over it.
34 was a long time coming. But boy, was it worth the wait.
34, 34 Grosvenor Square, London W1K 2HD Tel: 020 3350 3434 http://www.34-restaurant.co.uk