Hotel Chantelle is terribly exclusive. It has a bouncer, who is in charge of fastening and unfastening a red velvet rope, like you remember from nightclubs in the 1990s. It has a lady in a pencil skirt who stands next to him to check whether you’re on the list before you’re allowed in. And don’t even think about turning up in what you’re wearing right now, because you’ve got no chance. There’s a dress code: “dressy chic”. Thank God: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been to a restaurant and thought: “This is nice, but what would improve my experience is if the guy at the next table were wearing better shoes.”
Hotel Chantelle, you may have gathered, is difficult to love. Its list of felonies goes on: flashing lights, dishes called things like “The Mad Lobster”, crockery replaced by arbitrary items. And, of course, a DJ playing music that’s just a little too loud, so you have to yell to be heard by the person next to you.
This is the second outpost of Hotel Chantelle (neither are actually hotels – they’re named after a French World War II safe house), the first being a speak-easy style outfit in New York’s Lower East Side, which is said to be popular with the city’s bright young things. But just because you have a successful bar/restaurant in New York doesn’t mean you can start putting ropes around doorways in Marylebone.
This version features a large bar along one side, banquettes on the other and tables in-between, which I’d really hate to be seated at given how much traffic passes through. Perhaps due to the dress code, the clientele was made up entirely of 30-something guys wearing shirts tucked into jeans and 30-something women wearing black dresses.
The menu is designed with the Instagram generation in mind. Deviled eggs with caviar come in a glazed ceramic egg box strewn with flowers. The “Tuna tartare cigar” goes even further: a tube of wonton pastry filled with “sushi grade tuna” (there isn’t actually any such thing as “sushi grade tuna” – you could open a can of John West and call it sushi grade if you so desired) rests in a glass ashtray filled with wasabi. The end of the “cigar” is dipped in black sesame seeds to look like ash and smoke curls from a metal tray underneath. It’s certainly true to its vision, but you have to question a vision that involves eating out of an ashtray. Aesthetics aside, the pastry was too thick and the tuna too spicy.
A third starter of surf and turf – wagyu carpaccio with scallop tartare and caviar vinaigrette, topped with more flowers – was better (as it should be at £19), the rich, oily meat working well with the thickly chopped scallops. At the next table, people were eating slices of Iberico ham strung up from a tiny make-shift washing line. “Cats would love that,” mused El Pye.
And at this point I was starting to think: “This is actually alright, apart from making me eat out of an ashtray.” Sure, it’s ridiculous, but the cocktails were going down nicely – even the one rather unforgivably called “Daddy Issues” – and the service, by a pair of Mexican brothers with matching samurai haircuts, was impeccable. It was even… fun.
Then they blew it. Seared scallops, spooned back into their shells and served with bacon, quail egg and cider reduction, looked delightful but were overcooked, and the intense acid-hit of the vinegar was like sucking a battery. The monk fish suffered a similar fate, cooked until the robust texture that makes it such a beguiling fish was destroyed.
Desserts of “De-Constructed Strawberry Shortcake” and a pot of praline and chocolate crème with sliced bananas were both fine, but the damage was done.
As one of the Mexican brothers cleared the table, he fixed me with a smile of what seemed like genuine warmth and asked if I’d enjoyed it.
“Yes, thanks, perfect, cheers,” I lied.
I couldn’t bring myself to explain that I hated the flashing lights and the loud music and the fact that everybody was wearing matching outfits. Or that a restaurant doesn’t become exclusive just because you say so, that you can’t whip out a velvet rope and expect people to start queuing in front of it. Or that you need to earn your place on the culinary landscape, and that you should probably start with checking on the fish a bit more often.
First published in City A.M.