Review: Holborn Dining Room

April 30, 2014

There’s not a lot going on in Holborn, or “Midtown” as nobody outside of an estate agent’s office has ever called it. In actual Midtown, exactly 3,461.5 miles away, you have art deco skyscrapers and the United Nations, restaurants like Eleven Madison Avenue and Gramercy Tavern. In our version you have a museum full of stuff we stole, some new apartments that only Russians can afford and a branch of Pizza Express.

It forms the meek centre of a Venn diagram between the tourist dystopia of Covent Garden and the swaggering cultural vacuum of the City; it’s the hangout of lawyers and accountants and other people who wear charcoal suits that cost as much as family saloons.

But property developers would have you believe that’s all changing, and now it at least has a decent restaurant in Holborn Dining Room, the new Des McDonald venture at The Rosewood Hotel. Now, hotel restaurants don’t tend to do it for me. There are too many compromises; the menu has to tick dreary boxes to keep international travellers happy and there always seems to be too much space everywhere, just hanging about not doing very much. But McDonald’s place pulls off the trick of feeling intimate despite itself, combining Zedel’s grandeur with Chavot’s coziness.

I took my friend Nick, a northerner whose job sometimes sends him down to the big city, where he’s allowed a brief glimpse at the towering edifices and beautiful people – like Jude first laying eyes on the dreaming spires of Oxford – before he’s carted back to the land of leggings and fake tan to lance the boils of the rich, or whatever passes for industry up there these days. Last time he was down I made the mistake of taking him to a fine dining restaurant, which is too showy for when you’re trying to show off. To look properly erudite you have to aim a little lower, like when you order the second most expensive bottle of wine to make it look like you know what you’re talking about (actually, everybody knows that trick: go for the third). Holborn Dining Room is perfect. The maitre d’ – Jon Spiteri, an old cohort of Fergus Henderson – greeted us wearing a lime green Prince of Wales check suit, the like of which has never been seen further north than Kentish Town. He’s a neat shorthand for the front of house ethos; a relaxed exterior that masks a steely professionalism – he has the glint in his eye of someone who’s given the Alex Ferguson treatment to more than a few shirking waiters in his time.

The menu is well thought-out; there’s a lot on there – including your hotel staples – but it doesn’t feel unmanageable. And while you could order a chicken salad and a beef burger, there are more interesting options to keep those who actually enjoy food happy. I started with chicken livers and black pudding with a gigantic duck egg, which was heavy and metallic and delicious. The grilled scallops were also excellent, although they came with a decidedly average plate of lentils. A board of chorizo was decent but asparagus with hollandaise was the pick of the bunch (more down to the miracle of asparagus than the chef – long live asparagus season).

I went for sole for my main, in a bid to avoid mashed potato (the diet), which comes with virtually everything. I was rewarded with a slab of fish that was every bit as taut, zippy and lemony as you could hope. Nick, being a northerner, ordered a pie – and what a pie it was: puffy, crumbly pastry encasing fleshy chunks of beef with the faintest hint of stilton. He demanded I take points off for it being served in a tin dish, meaning he had to transfer it to his plate himself, which I agree is a bit of a bind. Seriously though: what a pie. The only mis-step was the roasted sea bass with chorizo and broad beans, which was heavy and oily and didn’t taste much like sea bass at all. Nick was charmed by a nifty little banana and custard dessert and I settled for some cheese (the diet again).

It’s great value – starters from £6 and mains around the £15-25 mark. London restaurant scene take note: you can serve food this good without charging over £30 a dish. At these prices, I’ll be bringing Nick back next time the north grants him day-release.

We retired to the terrace for coffee, where none other than queen of the cooks and tabloid survivor Nigella Lawson was having dinner with her kids. Nigella Lawson, eating dinner in Holborn: fancy that. Maybe there’s legs in this “Midtown” thing after all.

First published in City A.M.