Block Soho, Clarion House, 2 Saint Anne’s Court, London W1F 0AZ (020 3376 9999). Starters £9-£17, Sunday lunch £15-£26, desserts £9, wines from £27
Hanging on the wall above the urinal in the Soho block was a promotional poster for the Sunday lunch I had just finished. It carried the slogan: “Whole joints, big flames, good times”. Finally, I felt like I was being taken care of. Because if there’s one thing I can use, it’s clear criteria to judge a restaurant. So let’s start in the middle. Once upon a time there were great flames on this site. It is a wide, low space in a pedestrianized lane between Wardour and Dean streets in London’s Soho. Over the years, it’s been many things: American deli, tapas bar, Dante’s Seventh Circle of Hell soaked in vodka.
In 2015, the company behind steakhouse Goodman and the hilarious luxury steak and seafood restaurant Beast turned it into a high-value seafood spot called Rex and Mariano, but apparently , there weren’t enough people in London who wanted slurpy, salty clams for £6 a go, because Londoners are idiots. Instead, it became Zelman Meats, named after owner Mikhail Zelman. They did a few things – steaks, slow roasted short ribs, grilled oysters – very well. I remember a terrific Sunday lunch, with irregular sombrero-sized Yorkshires, crispy dark-hued roasts, and slices of what I then called taffeta-pink slices of beef.
To cook their steaks, they built a huge charcoal grill in the open kitchen, and as the animal fats flowed, the flames got really big; so much so that they erected a transparent protective screen to protect those seated at the counter lining the kitchen from third-degree burns. They sat transfixed as if they were face to face with a caged wild animal. In a way, they were.
Zelman closed during the lockdown, but little has been done to the space since the new owners arrived, except for some expensive marks on the walls. They kept the circular marble trough just inside the door as well as the cabins and tops. Unfortunately, it appears that the caged animal has been released. If there are big flames in this new restaurant, they are not in the open kitchen this Sunday noon. It contains only two harassed-looking cooks. The grill is off.
Which brings me to the “whole joints” promise. At Block Soho, on Sundays, you have the choice between pork, lamb or beef. This comes in slices. If these slices came off whole joints, I’d expect them to be pink, which is exactly what they set up for our photographer at a later date. Instead, ours had been seared on all sides like tiny steaks. We should take our word for it that ours came from a single joint. But then why enter it? Not that it makes much difference: it’s a tough, extremely indifferent piece of meat. The pork is moist and dull and comes without crackling, which I consider a personal insult. The lamb is a wintry shade of gray like me sometimes. These three dishes with accompaniment cost between £21 and £24 for three slices. You can have one of three, but it will cost you £26 for the exact same amount of meat. The menu also offers “Roasts – fresh from the sea”. Apparently the fish didn’t like it and stayed there. They don’t have any fish, unlike the chippie across the aisle which has plenty.
Meat dishes are accompanied by heavy and remarkably even Yorkshires. God’s own country might see that as cause for a libel suit. There are dense, pale roast potatoes the color of disappointment, and “charred” sticks of root vegetables that are undercooked and show little sign of charring. This is not surprising given the apparent lack of flames to char them. Let’s hear it, then, for the nice buttery cabbage. Let’s also listen to him for what they call “block gravy”. This makes me wonder what type of block was involved. It’s thick and muddy and looks strikingly like something I once made from a pack at home, to shit and laugh. That’s remarkable, considering they must have done it from scratch.
Before that, there is, well, food. I keep staring at the picture on my phone of the “pulled” pork on sourdough toast in a thick apple sauce; it looks choppy, which is quite another thing. The meatless option of grilled celeriac with cream is under-seasoned. There’s a stingy serving of beef carpaccio with roughly shaved parmesan cheese, but nicely disguised by squiggles of a squeezed bottle of thick balsamic vinaigrette. The best option is the Prawn and Crayfish English Seafood Cocktail, as it should be at £17.
Interestingly, for a restaurant promoting its Sunday lunch deal, the only dessert it doesn’t have today is apple crumble. Maybe they didn’t get their crumble deliveries. A dark chocolate tart has a thick filling and a soft, moist crust. I ask if they do it on site. They say they do. It’s good that they took responsibility. The cream in a mixed seasonal fruit has been over-whipped and is cracked. We hunt through clumping globules of dairy fat for the promised meringue, but ultimately call off the search, exhausted. It’s true that restaurants often struggle to keep up with household food rituals like Sunday lunch. Zelman Meats pulled off a good one; this, however, was described by one of my mates as the sort of thing you’d be served in an underperforming pub smelling of wet dog, for £6.95. As this companion is my wife, I will not argue.
What drives me crazy is that a lot of money has been spent here on branding and slogans; on creating the idea of a cool restaurant. But just saying things isn’t enough, if you don’t also invest in good ingredients and people who can prepare them properly. For reference, during the rest of the week there is a menu of salt-aged steaks, but don’t expect any bargains. Rib eye here is 47% more expensive per 100g than at Hawksmoor, rump steak is 33% more expensive and tenderloin 31% more expensive.
Credit must go to the front desk staff who deliver this terribly disappointing, shoddy experience with charm and efficiency. Unfortunately, charm and efficiency will only get you so far. Because here I am standing in the bog, staring at the words “good times” on the poster in front of me, thinking, “I really could have done with some of them.” It’s time to zip up and go home.
In a sign of the scale of the impact of the cost of living crisis on the hospitality sector: Creams, which operates more than 100 dessert parlors across the UK through franchise partners, has announced a series of support measures for its operators. At the heart of franchise agreements is a royalty paid to the operator on all products sold. Creams is cutting those royalties from next month until February 2023. The fact that they plan to open 10 more branches of the ice cream and cake bar by the end of this calendar year might have something to do with it. To creamscafe.com.
Better news from Hazeley Heath in Hampshire which is about to have a new gastropub. The Mutton family business kitchen will be run by Rob Boer, who began his career with Nathan Outlaw. And yes, mutton appears on the menu. There are mutton croquettes with anchovies, mutton stewed with crumpets and red cabbage, and shepherd’s pie made with slow-braised mutton shoulder. Visit themuttonhazeleyheath.co.uk.
Meanwhile, Chelsea in London is set to open a Basque-inspired gastropub overseen by 2010 MasterChef winner Dhruv Baker, who spent time cooking in northeast Spain. The menu at King’s House on King’s Road will include fire-grilled 90-day-aged Txuleton steak, grilled fish with butter beans and chorizo and charred leeks with romesco. See kingshousechelsea.co.uk.