I’m pretty sure Jason Atherton’s Berner’s Tavern featured prominently on the mood-board for Tamarind Collection’s new opening, One Kensington. They’re both big, high, grand old halls that have the air of government offices, or municipal libraries (One Kensington was in fact a former bank), spaces that crave – nay demand – crowds of chattering, beautiful young things.
But where Berner’s Tavern – admittedly a far more expensive venture – threw gilded frames and faux-classical prints over every visible square inch (think of the backdrop to those Instagram photos!), One Kensington seems to have baulked at the scale of the task and left most of it bare. The dining room is essentially divided horizontally in two – the bottom half is a not-unpleasant modern brasserie with wood panelling and leather banquettes, while the top half is bare and beige and just sort of hangs over you looking uncomfortable; an expanse of unused, unloved air. The whole thing gives the impression of being incomplete, like the pièce de résistance – some conspicuous, attention-grabbing sculpture, or a troupe of trapeze artists – had fallen off the back of the truck and they’re still waiting for the replacement.
The Tamarind Collection is best known for Tamarind Mayfair, which serves not-too-shabby Indian cuisine. Given the vogue for high-end subcontinental food, you could forgive it for sticking to its guns with One Kensington. Instead it goes for something completely different – a Mediterranean menu, prepared by Massimiliano Blasone, an Italian chef formerly of The Lanesborough.
On a Thursday evening, it was barely a quarter full. A jazz soundtrack, turned up too loud, filled the silence but there was no escaping the lack of human bodies. The smattering of people were a disparate bunch – a few tourists, a Sloaney couple who’d strayed a bit too far north and some bemused-looking Daily Mail journalists (their office is next door).
I went for venison to start and it was massive – a hefty plate of glossy, burgundy meat tossed with jerusalem artichoke, salsify puree and slivers of what I’m fairly sure was plantain. It worked fine but it was all very polite, none of the flavours stepping up to fight for their place.
The poached salmon was another giant among starters, served next to a stack of mash that would have seemed excessive with a main. The pickled beetroot it came with was nice and zesty but the salmon itself was slightly over-poached and the whole thing felt a tad confused.
Things improved for the mains – my guest’s veal schnitzel was brilliant, good enough to stand up to the best in Austria, he told me, which as we all know is the place to go for schnitzel. The lamb was just as good; a nice, simple, well cooked slab of meat. The caponata it was served on, though, had the same problem as my starter – too timid, too inconspicuous.
One Kensington clearly has ambition but it goes largely unrealised. It has the atmosphere of somewhere still in its soft opening; unfinished, not quite sure who it’s catering for. I still can’t work out if it’s a mid-market brasserie, as the décor would suggest, or a fairly lax stab at haute cuisine, as you’d assume from the prices. You just can’t get away with charging £30 for sea bass and ratatouille, or £28 for lamb and veg, unless you’re doing something pretty special with it.
And while it wouldn’t take much to bring the food up a notch, there’s a bigger problem. One Kensington wants to be a destination restaurant, and there are too many other places doing what it’s trying to do, but far better. I can’t think of a single reason to go here over Berner’s Tavern or the Holborn Dining Room. There might be a very good restaurant to be coaxed out of One Kensington, but I fear it will never be quite good enough.
First published in City A.M.