“How do you find enough new restaurants to review a different one every week?” asked my father during our monthly chat. Bless the old fool: he lives in Derbyshire and can’t be expected to know any better.
He’s oblivious to the fact you could bankrupt yourself visiting a new restaurant every night of the week and still somehow miss the Mordovian-Sindhi autosarcophagy experience set-up in a purely theoretical space somewhere on the outskirts of the North Circular.
London is to restaurants what Rule 34 is to the internet: if you can think of it, someone has opened a restaurant of it. It makes short-term trend-spotting futile: dozens of disparate enterprises open and close in a chaotic ebb and flow, becoming overnight superstars or folding into obscurity. Only with the benefit of hindsight can you begin to make sense of this haphazard tapestry, to see, say, that the 80s gave birth to gauche-luxe fine-dining, or that the 2000s were responsible for the rise of artisanal, small-batch producers who do things like make cheese in their airing cupboard.
So I hesitate to call anything a trend – all I can tell you is what I’ve had for dinner. And recently I’ve seen a lot of menus that take in more countries than an Australian backpacker. They stop off in South America, pop their head into the European capitals before ending up somewhere in the South China Sea. It feels like being stuck in a spin-cycle with Heston’s weekly shop, churning around and around with ingredients from far-flung corners of the globe.
Last week it was Foley’s in Fitzrovia, with its spice trail-inspired menu that’s been inexplicably stretched to include South America. Before that it was Shoreditch’s The Frog, whose menu is British by the way of East Asia. And this week it was Andrew Lassetter and Jonathan Villar’s Bronte, which opened a few days ago on The Strand, with a menu that’s ostensibly inspired by the Pacific Rim, but also takes in the Middle East and southern Europe.
Bronte is named not after the literary sisters but Lord Nelson, 1st Duke of Bronte, who you can see perched atop his plinth from the seats out front. It’s in the building that used to house Wolseley-wannabe Strand Dining Rooms, although the transformation is comprehensive. Gone is the gloomy, dark wood, replaced by a Tom Dixon-designed, vaguely nautical themed space with a sherbet-pink bar, coral seats, turquoise banquettes and glass cabinets filled with minerals and fossils. It’s inspired, I’m told, by the objects collected by 16th century travellers. I think it looks silly.
You’re greeted by the nnts nnts nnts of dance music and the sparkly eyes of attractive girls and boys. All of this sets off alarm bells: central location, loud music, garish design – not things that tend to suggest excellent cuisine.
The menu is divided into slightly ungainly sections: “small plates” (fine), “salads and Bronte dishes” (what? Turns out “Bronte dishes” are mains not cooked on the grill – a burger, fish and chips, and an edamame and kale pancake), “grilled fish, meat and marinaded meat” (fine), and “sides and desserts” (no idea why you’d lump these together).
The food ranges from perfectly competent to exceptionally competent. It neither plumbs terrible depths nor scales great heights. The chorizo and prawn scotch egg, for instance, would have been perfect had the yolk been cooked a fraction longer. The crab and avocado rolls are daintily constructed and bursting with meat. Hanger steak with weeping tiger dressing (garlic, coriander, fish sauce, soy sauce and sugar) was nicely grilled but lacked the oomph of its Thai namesake. No such complaints about the chicken samosa with thin, crisp pastry, served with lashings of miso-yoghurt and pomegranate, which was the stand-out dish of the evening.
I had scallops for my main, which is cheating because scallops are just fundamentally delicious unless you overcook them, in which case you should be forced to immediately close your restaurant, but nothing else was calling out to me. They were as they should be.
The roast lamb rump opposite was simple and tasty: nicely cooked strips of meat served with a ramekin of honey, garlic and rosemary. Nothing to object to. And desserts: they were fine too, especially the chocolate chilli fondant. Not much to look at but a good consistency with a mild kick from the chilli.
“That was nice, wasn’t it?” I said to my friend Nick.
“It sure was,” he said. “But I bet if I ask you about it in six months, you won’t remember anything we ate.”
He’s right. Bronte takes few risks and makes few mistakes. There’s nothing wrong with it, and at £150 for two with cocktails and a mid-tier bottle of wine, it’s neither horribly expensive nor astonishingly cheap. Go there and you’ll have a perfectly fine time. I just can’t help but think that in a city that spits out more restaurants than my dad’s had hot dinners, it doesn’t quite do enough.
First published in City A.M.