Critics, unlike postmen, only ring the once. One visit per hospitable incarnation. If you get a new owner or a new chef, maybe you get a second go. Most places are happy with the one, like an inoculation. Either it was good and they get a pull quote for the website, or it was bad and they’d rather not repeat the experience. The week after my review of the Chiltern Firehouse, the owner saw me at a party, spread his arms, and said: “Is that it, then? Can we be friends now?” It is. We can. I’ll never have to tell you what I think about your food ever again.
I’m sometimes asked how I can show my face in restaurants I’ve given bad reviews to. Why would you want to eat bad food twice on purpose? It’s often returning to the good ones that can be disappointing. There was the pub I gave an effervescently enthusiastic review to and, when I went back six months later, they were serving foul burgers and microwaved sticky toffee pudding. The manager regarded me with a wary scowl. They’d been overwhelmed with customers bearing unrealistic expectations. Everything that could go wrong did. The chef was poached. The waitress left in tears. The punters complained and the drinkers went over the road. Then three other critics turned up to give stinking reviews.
But a couple of weeks back, I was giving dinner to Hannah Rothschild, chairwoman of the National Gallery, and Luke Syson, decorative curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. We were all going to be around north-central London — where to take them? Portland, suggested the Blonde. I reviewed it a year or so ago, and liked it, but had never been back. God, it was good. Not just as good as I remembered, but a severely accomplished, sophisticated, grown-up, elegant kitchen that gives vegetables and meat equal billing and time. I had great venison, very good fish, a huge amount of vegetables and a simply sensational pithivier of wild duck. The room was a pleasure, the service encouraging; it is a really great restaurant, and I’m happy the circumstances took me back and I’ve been given enough room to pass the message on again, which is thanks to Sackville’s.
I’ve been meaning to go to Sackville’s, on Sackville Street, for a few months. It boasts that it does luxury hamburgers with truffle and foie gras. Really? Really and truly? Is this the first Back to the Future 1980s-themed eatery? Are we going to relive the era of conspicuous consumption? Appropriately, it’s opposite Benihana, the ghost of food fads past. They used to, and probably still do, juggle the salt and pepper and fling prawns about, like the oriental version of Tom Cruise in Cocktail.
I took Anda Rowland, who owns Anderson & Sheppard, a local tailor, and is deeply concerned about the look, footfall and atmosphere of this little bit of Mayfair. It’s a small, dark, unlovely room, with mirrors on the walls that are not meant to be looked into, but are there because the alternative would be that someone would have to choose pictures. We were shown to a comfortable booth and given a menu that is commendably short, but long on foie gras, beef in its various iterations and truffles. It didn’t stipulate what sort of truffle. I suspect black and mostly truffle oil, which usually isn’t truffle at all. We started with foie gras on toast, which wasn’t too bad, seared on the outside and just warm and wobbly in the middle. I haven’t seen this on the menu for years; and, unbidden, a vision of Antony Worrall Thompson sprung into my mind. Then a carefully made quinoa salad that had all the limited and dull, worthy attributes of quinoa.
In the busiest week of the year, when all other dining rooms within a square mile were bursting with office parties and off-to-town shopping lunches, the place was empty
Main course is meat things. Anda had a fillet steak cut from USDA beef. USDA is an American certification, measured on marbling and age — it goes from prime, then choice, down to canning. More and more restaurants are importing American beef, which is mostly corn-fed, sickly, soft and sweet. I had a burger. Burgers are like sports cars. They bring out the worst in men in kitchens. There is no mystery or sophistication to a hamburger. It’s hot mincemeat in a sandwich. But cooks, real cooks, continue to fiddle with their burgers. So I was offered the option of the ultimate burger with everything, or the ultimate burger with everything and then a bit more. I had the one that had just everything, leaving out the foie gras, as I’d already had that.
What came was a tower containing two burger patties, one made from USDA beef, the other from wagyu. There was cheese and a bit of ham, posing as bacon, truffle mayo and chips with more grated truffle.
The waiter had asked if medium was all right, because Westminster council insisted on all burgers being cooked through. This is the third time I’ve been told this in Mayfair. I really don’t want or need the council’s health-and-safety wonks poking their fingers up my burger to see if it’s got a temperature.
What came was an absurd and embarrassingly pathetic dish, a childish tower that was inedible in its design, unless you were a python, and had to be dismantled, defeating the defining characteristics of a burger. Having two patties was ridiculous: the expensive meat is made bland and miserable when minced. The rest of it fell apart. It was infuriatingly difficult to eat.
I can’t imagine why anyone would want to make this, sell it or come back and eat it again. The answer, apparently, is no one does. In the busiest week of the year, when every other dining room within a square mile was full to bursting with office parties and off-to-town shopping lunches, Sackville’s was empty. If it hadn’t been for the two of us, the only thing the chef would have had to cook was lunch for the waiter. Expensive ingredients used cheaply in short-order dishes are inevitably dumb to eat. I didn’t think I’d ever be pleased to see an empty dining room, but this one was happily, hearteningly bereft.
This is the time of year when I need to say thank you to the people who make this column work; first to Sophie, Frankie and Clare, who write down the copy, and then the sub-editors, who make it make sense. There is a hack truism that writers always complain about sub-editors and subs always complain about writers. Not me. They save my pancetta on a weekly basis. And I’m immensely grateful. Just to give you a taste of what I mean, here is the last email I was sent: “Couple of points: 1) ‘Boracic’ seems to be the correct spelling for the slang term meaning skint (boracic lint). 2) Changed octopus ‘legs’ to ‘tentacles’ as they apparently have both arms and legs. 3) Unable to confirm similarity of the scrotum to cods’ swim bladders, but I’m sure you’re right.” Thank you.
Sackville’s, Mayfair, 8a Sackville Street, London W1S 3DF; 020 7734 3623, sackvilleslondon.com. Mon-Sun: noon-1am
Second helpings: three of the best truffle-named restaurants
Burnt Truffle, Merseyside
This “humble neighbourhood bistro” serves innovative food, including Jacob’s Ladder — watercress, truffle, parmesan chips and onion purée.
104-106 Telegraph Road, Heswall, Wirral CH60 0AQ; 0151 342 1111, burnttruffle.net
Truffle Restaurant, Darlington
A fine-dining eatery that uses seasonal produce and, of course, truffles, including cauliflower and truffle soup.
20 Grange Road, Darlington DL1 5NG; 01325 483787, trufflerestaurant.co.uk
Truffles Brasserie, Somerset
An intimate, French-themed restaurant with a modern twist, serving traditional ratatouille with truffled tagliatelle and gruyère.
95 High Street, Bruton, Somerset BA10 0AR; 01749 812180, trufflesbistro.co.uk