It’s a hard life being a restaurateur. So much is out of your hands. Restaurants can rise or fall on a series of unpredictable, almost arbitrary events. You might be packed to the rafters one evening, and completely empty the next. And you can bet it will be the latter when a critic pops in to pick holes in your lovingly crafted restaurant. So it goes.
When I went to Master & Servant it was dead. Now, there’s dead and there’s dead. This was neither. This was post-apocalyptic, extinction of the human race dead. This was endless deserts filled with the bones of long deceased creatures dead, or the gently swirling dusts of an uninhabited planet dead. When I arrived, a full 20 minutes before my guest, I was alone with the staff, who looked appropriately mortified. I had chosen the quietest night since the place opened, they said, and if I looked out the window I would see that the whole of Hoxton Square was empty, so it wasn’t a reflection on the restaurant, ok? In fact, just last week Leona Lewis off the X-Factor was in and she was actually really nice.
To save me sitting alone in the 60-cover restaurant, twiddling my thumbs and wondering if I was going to be stood up, I was offered the chef’s table downstairs, where at least the noise of the kitchen would help fill the vacuum of silence. At the back of the vaguely New York-style dining room, with its obligatory exposed brick walls and brown leather banquets, is a set of steps leading to what is, in reality, more of a chef’s alcove than a chef’s table; a cranny under the stairs with space for five or six people, if you don’t mind getting cosy.
The menu is British with a twist, with – of course – an emphasis on the provenance of ingredients. It is heavily inspired by St John, with proprietor/manager/sometime cook Matt Edwards and his head chef Luke Cleghorn both having laboured under the auspices of Fergus Henderson. Edwards is a former EMI bigwig (Master and Servant is a Depeche Mode song) who went on to try his luck on Masterchef, reaching the semi finals. Master & Servant is his first restaurant. And, while it isn’t a disaster, it shows.
To start I went for the clam chowder. The pleasingly thick broth tasted great but the temperature wasn’t consistent: every fourth or fifth mouthful was upsettingly tepid.
My guest, who had eventually deigned to relieve me of my solitary confinement, went for the half crab, which, from our alcove, we could see long before it arrived, sizzling away on the grill, legs akimbo. I find shelled crab far too much effort for too little reward but the forkful my guest wrestled from the beast was nice enough. The menacingly large pot of chipotle mayonnaise it was served with, though, was a mistake: far too spicy, overpowering the delicate meat.
For my main I went for the lamb, smoked onion and ramsons. Looks are clearly not the top priority with this dish – the glazed skin was a rusty splodge nestled beside a grey/yellow paste. It looked like a particularly muted Van Gogh landscape. But it was delicious. The slow-cooked lamb had the consistency of particularly tender pulled pork and was loaded with flavour. My guest went for the hanger steak, which tasted of virtually nothing around the edges and got better towards the middle. Call me old fashioned but I expect a steak to be tasty throughout, even if it does only cost £15.80. The mulch of onions and accompanying bone marrow (both perfectly fine) only served to highlight the main event’s failings.
Master & Servant’s wouldn’t be seen dead faffing about with molecular gastronomy, but it felt like our dishes had been carefully crafted to mimic the atomic weight of a collapsing star. Heavy doesn’t begin to describe it. The dessert menu looked like an insurmountable challenge.
Soldiering on, I went for the rhubarb posset, which was – rejoice! – light, creamy and tart: a welcome change of pace. My guest chose less wisely. The chocolate éclair was a monster. When it crept into my dreams that night it was being carried by six waiters, who buckled under its impossible girth. Apparently it was lighter than it looked but I didn’t have it in me to find out for myself.
There are the makings of a decent little restaurant in Master & Servant. Edwards knows good food; it’s the balance that’s off – there is too much stodge; the prices are up and down (£14.80 for lemon sole is remarkably good value but £4.20 for a pretty average plate of chips is daylight robbery) and he should really think of closing up on the nights that nobody is likely to turn up. These are things that will come in time. It’s a tough old business though: Master & Servant better work out its issues pretty quickly if it’s to have a future.
First published in City A.M.