[Ad – gifted: I joined a colleague from Belle About Town on a complimentary review meal and it was so lovely I decided to write about it here]
On paper, Quaglino’s in the run-up to Christmas is everything I shy away from. Unbridled opulence, sexy lighting, a sweeping staircase reminiscent of some kind of epic Saturday-night game show, and excess in the form of besuited City types swilling down champers like it’s going out of fashion.
They’re all things I don’t tend to like. Yet despite all of these, I bloody loved Quaglino’s. Why, you’re wondering, if it’s so unlike most of the places that make me feel all warm and gooey inside without making me wish I had bought a new dress and knew how to have a conversation about equity partners or angel investments?
It’s simple. Because whereas in so many restaurants the expensive interior, the sexy lighting and the name on the bottles of fizz are prioritised above anything else, leaving small matters like the quality of the food and drink languishing in the corner like Baby of Dirty Dancing fame, here they’re just some added extras.
And despite a few initial thoughts that I would be thrown out of this rather swanky St James’s restaurant for my lack of designer threads and rather regional background, Quaglino’s proved that it really is there to be enjoyed by anyone and everyone, sharing its largesse around to all and sundry.
A restaurant at lunchtime, Quaglino’s also boasts a stage where you can enjoy live music in the evening, as well as some rather spectacular sounding brunches at weekends. It’s a place to live it up in one of the smarter neighbourhoods in London pretty much whenever you want.
Yet if the decor in the underground restaurant raised concerns about a possible style over substance issue, the menu soon put them to bed. With four choices per course, it kept things classically with an added air of promise.
Starters like duck rillette and smoked salmon followed by confit duck leg and braised ox cheek showed a confidence in tried-and-tested flavours, but with a few little ambitious additions to remind you that this isn’t just another unimaginative facsimile eatery churning out the same old things as so many others.
We decided over a carafe of Chenin Blanc, recommended by our rather suave waiter and soon I was teaming it with the duck rillette, delicately flavoured and counterbalanced by the sour notes of a kumquat puree and tart pickled cranberries.
My friend went for a parsnip veloute poured over kaffir lime, with the addition of pomegranate seeds. Not my choice when there are other starters up for grabs, but apparently it was delightful.
The starters were a good warm-up but it was the mains that stole the show for me. I had opted for the braised ox cheek with pomme mousseline, pancetta, sprout tops and red wine jus. I’m writing this blog post over a month after we went to Quaglino’s and I can literally still taste that dish.
The perfect example of how this cut should be cooked, a light touch with a fork saw the meat fall apart. Scoop it up with a forkful of silky potato and rich jus and you’ve got the perfect mouthful right there. A classic plate that somehow is just as at home in the theatrical setting of Quaglino’s as it would be in a country gastropub.
I’m not sure if this is testament to the dish itself or Quaglino’s ability to combine its extravagant look and feel with food that relies on quality and good execution rather than over-styling and gimmicks.
My pal went for another simple dish that we’ve all seen on plenty of menus before, yet had that added je ne sais quoi to remind you that, no, you’re not in just another normal place.
Her wild mushroom and autumn truffle risotto with pickled walnut, aged parmesan and herbs again managed to look hearty and filling without the slightest hint of stodge or boring beige. I snaffled a little spoonful and the umami hit was moreish as hell, with an added dimension of some fragrant herbs.
Of course, all of that was helped by the South African Pinotage that our waiter had artfully moved us on to. My friend described it over on Belle About Town as “intuitive and seamless service” and I’m inclined to agree.
There was only room left for one dessert and a Tonka Bean pannacotta with blackberries, a French salted butter cookie dubbed a ‘Sable Breton’ and lime sorbet won our vote, for which I’m eternally grateful as if we hadn’t chosen it we’d never have laid eyes on what is one of the prettier desserts I’ve been served of late.
One for the lovers of aesthetics as well as flavour fiends, it was another marriage of flavours that has been tried and tested more times than I’ve ruined a meal in the kitchen and for good reason. Creamy pannacotta, tart blackberries, a slight salty hint from the biscuit, and a sour hit courtesy of the lime sorbet. And all arranged as per an Instagrammer’s dream.
So captivated were we by the general experience that by the time we stood up to leave, the restaurant had completely emptied. Gone were the suited and booted playboys and their slighty tipsy colleagues, gone was the hustle and bustle, and all we were left with was the grandeur of Quaglino’s and the waiters who had so gently taken us under their wing for the afternoon.
I wasn’t sure if I’d like Quaglino’s. I almost didn’t want to. Yet I left after an afternoon of good food, nice wine and decent service in rather stunning surroundings, plus a bit of an itching desire to go back again at some point. And if we’re honest, how much more do you want?