The LaLee, The Cadogan, 75 Sloane Street, London SW1X 9SG (020 8089 7070). Starters £ 14- £ 20, mains £ 18- £ 49, desserts £ 6- £ 9.50, wines from £ 29
Restaurants aren’t merely dining rooms with kitchens attached. They are complex machines with invisible moving parts. Get the design wrong and it’s all grind and shudder, as if you’re on a train riding the breaks into Warrington Bank Quay. The design of the LaLee at the Cadogan hotel in Chelsea is all wrong. It doesn’t quite function. It feels like a restaurant put together by excitable designers who were thrilled with their cloth swatches, and their rug choices and the overall branding, but whose attention drifted during the meetings when the hotel’s food and beverage people explained what kind of a joint they actually had in mind.
Let’s start with the branding. The LaLee was the name of the personalized railway carriage used by Lillie Langtry, the actor and society figure, when she was touring America in the 19th century. The link being that Langtry’s townhouse at 21 Pont Street is now a part of the hotel. This is not the first time the Cadogan has attempted to cash in on her name. A couple of owners back they opened a car crash of a place called Langtry’s, where the menu included a deconstructed prawn cocktail – shellfish jelly, battered prawns, a Marie Rose ice-cream made from mayonnaise and tomato ketchup – thoughts of which sometimes haunt me in the darkest hours before dawn.
None of the food here is as catastrophic as that, but the link is made uneasily. Langtry is portrayed in the menu text as a woman whose only currency was sex appeal; as the proverbial good time had by all. Starters are introduced as “a little flirtation before the main event”. Desserts are “scandalously sweet to make you swoon”. This might work if you were here on a date, but rather less so if, say, you’d booked in for lunch with Derek from accounts so you could go over the year-end numbers. The mains are described as “heavenly main dishes from Europe’s finest cities”. This amounts to a schnitzel, steak and chips, a rack of lamb, an aubergine parmigiana for two and so on, all at Chelsea prices, that price being roughly £ 30 a pop. It’s sold as high glamor. In truth, it’s a menu designed for well-heeled tourists on the fourth day of their London trip when they can’t be fagged to leave the hotel to eat.
So why did I bother going? For one reason: they also promise culinary tableside theater. I’m a complete sucker for this. I love it when a skilled waiter turns up next to my table with a box of tricks and some killer moves to prepare my dinner in front of me. It’s very old school and it’s utterly beguiling. Here they promise to do the business with both a Caesar salad and a steak tartare. Which is where it all gets a bit messy. A trolley might be a good idea for this. Instead, they’ve got white, spindly- legged wooden tables, which may be very expensive, but look instead like allen key jobs from the Ikea New England Cottage range. Moving them is a two-person task. While we wait to be served, there’s much table moving from one plushly furnished room to another. Oh look, they’re coming back again.
Finally, it’s our turn. And it is tableside. It’s just not our tableside. Presumably it’s the designer who has insisted on arranging the room in such a way that the one for the Caesar has to be placed a full 5ft away from us to our left across the aisle next to a booth. The steak tartare table is far over the other side of the unoccupied table to our right. This makes watching the whole theater you’ve come for very tricky. There simply isn’t room to pull off the thing they want to do. (Similarly, the rug on the parquet floor isn’t big enough for all the tables in this room, so one foot of my chair is off when we arrive, creating an instant wobble. We take things into our own hands and rearrange the furniture .)
But as ever, I must accentuate the positive. The waiters do a truly beautiful job, even if we have to crane our necks to watch them do it. The mayonnaise for the Caesar really is whipped up from scratch and the cos salad is big on the salted anchovies, as I requested. The steak tartare is properly piquant, again as requested. A bit of toast wouldn’t have gone amiss with the latter given the £ 20 price tag, but hey. Still, both dishes really are as good as any you’ll find in London right now.
After that, it’s all about as humdrum as you might imagine from the menu descriptions: serviceable lamb chops that could have done with more time under the grill; a meagre half fillet of sea bass for £ 26 with some fennel; overly thick courgette fries, so the overcoat of batter is undercooked at the heart. Dessert is just unfortunate. A madeleine served warm from the oven is a joy. These are overcooked and dry. The savarin, or yeasted sponge cake at the heart of the rum baba, should be a gorgeous, bronzed and burnished thing. This is just an oversoaked puck of dense sponge.
Still, it’s a nice place for dinner and a quiet chat. Or it would be, were it not for the stern man in the next room who keeps shouting. Because the LaLee has a big open kitchen. These can be great in chattery, clattery brasseries where the kitchen noise disappears into the general hubbub. They can also work in those high gastronomic temples where the monastic brigade has developed a sign language involving the positioning of tweezers on their apron straps and imperceptible hand gestures.
The LaLee is neither of these. It’s a mildly chintzy place of quiet, civilized conversation, constantly broken by the head chef barking orders at his crew, as if the kitchen is behind a door. For the diners who have chosen the two tables in front of the kitchen I imagine it’s fine. For the rest of us it’s just plain weird. I’ve long felt sympathy for cooks who merely want to do their job, but have been put on display in an open kitchen as part of the experience. Here, because of the jarring way in which the place has been designed, that issue is just emphasized. It rather sums up the LaLee. It’s attempting to be a thrilling destination restaurant, when in truth it should just be the utilitarian dining option in a fancy boutique London hotel. As a result, it’s neither.
Ukrainians coming to the UK to escape the war will need more than just somewhere to live. As the government’s delayed scheme to enable people to seek refuge here finds its feet, the Sanctuary Foundation has been established to enable individuals, community bodies and businesses to offer support, including jobs. Krish Kandiah, one of those behind the new organization, has identified the hospitality industry, which has both staffing shortages and the potential for flexibility, as a potential source. He asks that any businesses which think they might be able to provide employment register their support on the site. Visit sanctuaryfoundation.org.uk.
Tim Allen, one-time head chef of Launceston Place in London and the Wild Rabbit at Kingham in the Cotswolds, is finally going it alone. He has opened the appropriately named Sõlõ in Aughton, West Lancashire. It seats just 38, with two chefs in the kitchen preparing set menus priced at £ 35 at lunchtime and £ 65 in the evening. See restaurantsolo.co.uk.
The No 131 boutique hotel in Cheltenham, owned by Jade and Julian Dunkerton of the Superdry fashion label fame, is to open a new upmarket (read spendy) Japanese restaurant called Yoku. The menu includes a sushi omakase for four to six people at £ 120, miso scallops with shiitake mushrooms and a selection of hand rolls and sashimi. At no131.com/yoku.
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