I wonder if Ten Room at Café Royal saw it coming. A multi-million pound restaurant in an iconic London hotel… If you listened carefully in the days leading up to opening week earlier this year, you could hear the faint, metallic screech of knives being sharpened. And by all accounts, it was more than deserving of the mauling it received.
Rarely is a restaurant so unanimously despised. No detail was spared: the lighting, the staff, the uniforms, the furniture. Certainly not the food. “Demolish it and start again,” was one suggestion.
You have two choices following this kind of apocalyptic monstering: stick your head in the sand, decry the attack-dog mentality of the newspaper fraternity, claim jealousy, spite and personal grievance, wail, yell and gnash your teeth. You can go even further and threaten spurious legal action if you want to really out-do yourself. This was the general tack taken by the Covent Garden iteration of Balthazar last year (in fairness, it split opinion down the middle, with critics either spontaneously orgasming or clawing their food back off their tongues with a napkin).
Or you can swing wildly in the other direction, take every blow on the chin, undergo a period of self-flagellation and soul searching, fire some people and try to fastidiously plug every leak.
Ten Room chose the latter. A new food and drink manager has been installed. Gone are the high-backed red banquettes and matching carpet; brown is the colour du jour. The lights have been dimmed several notches, giving the dining room an earthy hue. The staff can now recite the ingredients of every dish like a Victorian school child reading his times tables. Tablecloths have been whipped away in a bid to appear less stuffy. Short of tearing up the marble fixtures, it’s about as different as it could get.
And while Balthazar remains a gaudy temple of mediocrity, Ten Room is now a rather nice place to while away an evening. Perhaps, every now and then, critics actually know what they’re talking about.
That’s not to say it’s perfect. It can’t escape its geography, for a start. Positioned directly off Air street, with no entrance porch, you step straight off the road into the restaurant; the row of marble bollards separating the seating from the revolving doors don’t provide enough of a partition, although I wasn’t even vaguely minded to urinate on them, as one reviewer was. And while the new décor is a vast improvement, you’re still keenly aware that you’re in a hotel, with its lofty ceilings and gloomy mezzanine looming over you. It’s certainly not a patch on the gilt and mirror opulence of the newly-christened Oscar Wilde Bar next door.
But what of the food that has caused so much consternation? Well, it was rather good.
Executive chef Andrew Turner won’t be everybody’s cup of tea. His food is what you might call “challenging”. If you’re looking for unfussy comfort food, you’re in the wrong place.
A pleasant amuse bouche of chilli gazpacho, for example, was served in what I’m fairly sure was a crack pipe. A pre-starter of scallop ceviche (£14) was a maelstrom of flavours and textures; a generous helping of shellfish (addressing a former complaint) layered with caramelised sugar shards, avocado, mandarin, asparagus and hazelnuts. It’s a lot to absorb – a Charlie’s Chocolate Factory take on ceviche – but it was delicious.
Duck foie gras (£16), rippled through with streaks of smoked magret and served with a hefty dollop of chutney, is every bit as heart-attack inducing as you could hope; it left a simple pea and truffle velouté somewhat in the shade.
My main of herb crusted lamb rump (£24) was already starting to feel like a bit of an uphill struggle, given how rich everything is, but it was lovingly prepared and served with some divine sweetbreads.
Lobster “Pompadour” (£28) was another vortex of calories – tasty and terrifying in equal measure – with fleshy claw and tail meat served amid layers of pasta, all swimming in a creamy, saffrony sauce that leaves your stomach with its own gravitational field.
At this point I slipped into a food coma, emerging what felt like several years later. I had to take a walk before dessert. The citrus fruit salsa (£8) was like a Dali landscape of abstract shapes and textures; squares of feather-light fromage frais were draped in jackets of jellied mandarin, a globule of ice cream lay on an island of candied fruit, pebbles of marshmallow were dotted with pistachio, and sprigs of coriander were also involved. A less ostentatious chocolate mousse “Royale” (£8) was served with a relatively prosaic earl grey ice cream and honeycombed chocolate pieces.
I complained a few weeks ago that the food at Alain Ducasse’s Rivea at the Bulgari Hotel lacked the requisite panache for the space: you certainly can’t accuse Ten Room of the same. It’s positively show-offy; food that demands to be picked at in tiny forkfuls, accompanied by appreciative coos and nods.
And that’s exactly what I want from Café Royal – somewhere I can take friends from the provinces to show them how fancy the food is down here. And at £160 without any booze, it better had be bloody fancy.
Even if you could afford it, you wouldn’t want to eat here every day, and that’s kind of the point. I get the feeling Ten Room has – belatedly – found its place in the world.
First published in City A.M.