I was feeling very good about Arbutus when we sat down. For a start it came about as the result of a spur of the moment decision, and I find those are often my favourite and most memorable eating out experiences. Secondly, they’d been able to seat us, having traipsed to and fro across Soho from West to East, on a blustery, rain squally night, finding no room at several inns on the way, and being very nearly ready to chuck it all in and get a burger from GBK, or go home. Thirdly Becca, having recently been paid, was promising to treat me. Fourthly, Becca’s price limit on my treat was ‘mid range’ and Arbutus, despite its Michelin star, is still reasonably enough priced to fall within that limit, particularly if we were just to order a main and go easy on the wine. Fifthly, I have read and heard many good things about Arbutus over the years since it opened, and had long wanted to go there, to be finally doing so more or less by accident, felt like it should be the set up for a real treat.
And I carried on feeling good about it. Our waitress was friendly and very helpful, completely unstressed and positive about accommodating Becca’s imposing list of allergies. The menu looked good, so good we couldn’t stick to the just a main and a carafe restriction and agreed that Becca would cover the main and the wine and we’d split the excess for starters and any other extras. We placed our orders - warm wild mushroom salad with salsify and chestnuts to start for Becca; pig’s head with potato puree and ravioli of caramelized onion for me. For mains she had the venison, I had the rack of pork. Our waitress came back straight away with the adjustments for Becca’s allergies and warned us there’d be a slightly longer wait than usual because they’d have to cook the salsify for her warm wild mushroom salad from scratch, which was fine by us. We had a chocolate and cherry fragranced Patagonian cabernet sauvignon/merlot to tide us over, from a wine list that is yet another and very good reason to feel good about Arbutus. The list is not only eminently reasonable, starting around the twenty pound mark, but all wines come by the bottle, or the 250ml carafe, and our carafe at just £8.25, was a cockle warming bargain.
By this point I was feeling very good and well disposed towards the World in general and Arbutus in particular. But, and I’m sorry to have to say this, I really am, then our food arrived.
The first sign of the disappointment to come, in retrospect, came with the delivery of my pig’s head. It was served with something close to an apology. The waitress explaining that the advertised ravioli of caramelized onion was in fact no such thing. It was a single raviolo composed of onion encased not by pasta, but by two discs of what was described as “andouillette tripe”.
At which point I must pause to declare an interest, or should I say an aversion: I know I’ve used this blog in the past to advocate the nose to tail approach to eating meat, but I have to hold my hand up and admit to there being a gap in my commitment – a gap that comes between nose and tail, but closer to the tail, and into which fall the stomach and lower intestine. I’ve tried with tripe, I really have, but I’ve never been able to locate the appeal of the combination of unpleasant texture and no real flavour. Better tripe though, by far, than andouillette, the sausage made from pig’s colon, with it’s winning combination of unpleasant texture and really unpleasant flavour. There’s a reason the phrase ‘tastes like shit’ is commonly used for things that don’t taste good, and it’s not because the thing in question actually does taste like shit, nor even that most of us, thankfully, know what shit really tastes like. Andouillette, though, actually does, literally, taste of shit, and you know what? It tastes like shit. And I’m sorry, I’m all for acquired tastes and that, but you know, there’s a line…
Having said that, I am more than happy to see tripe or andouillette on a menu. I’m positively encouraged. It speaks, in a very literal sense, of gutsy cooking. Bold and unafraid of offending squeamish sensibilities. Exactly, in fact, what all the rave reviews had let me to expect of Arbutus. Tripe appeared several times on the menu, and that was fine by me even if I wasn’t going to order it. But the fact that my andouillette raviolo was not announced on the menu, and the apologetic manner with which it was delivered, complete with advice to put a little of everything on the fork to disguise it’s flavour, was the opposite of bold. It spoke rather of cooking, and presentation, that lacked the courage of its own convictions. And the saddest thing is, even given my reservations above, I was willing to be won over, even to like the andouillette, indeed it’s a measure of the problem I had with the food we were served, quite how keenly willing I became. Not that it was bad, I would like to stress. It really wasn’t. It was just sadly underwhelming, and I wanted it to be so much better.
The pig’s head, a coarse terrine, was a good start in itself, soft and sweetly piggy. Problem was that everything on the plate, the lozenge of pureed potato, the caramelized onion, even the andouillette, was similarly soft and sweet. Had it come on toast, with a pickle or sharp chutney on the side, I could have loved it. Becca had been slightly cautious about going for the wild mushrooms following our recent mushroom adventures. She wondered if it might fare poorly by comparison. I’m afraid she was right. It was all just a bit flimsy. And there were no chestnuts, just a very cultivated looking chestnut mushroom among the trompettes, which didn’t really help. The best bit was the carrots, which were apparently excellent, but that’s to damn with faint praise.
Becca’s venison seemed more like it at first, tender, succulent meat, with a surprising suggestion of having been seared in sesame oil, which may or may not have been a result of the accommodation of her allergies. After that initial surprise though, it all became a bit samey, the meat perhaps a touch lightly seasoned but more to the point the accompanying pomegranate salad and beetroot marmalade hitting too similar sweet notes.
First thing I noticed about my rack of pork when it came was that it was served off the bone. When I order a rack, I want to see the rack – is that too much to ask? Apparently so. This rack came disassembled into a disc of lean meat, more steak than medallion, and a lip smackingly fatty strip of belly. Like the venison it was a soft and yielding piece of meat, nicely cooked to a delicate pink. Like the venison there was a surprising Chinese-y hint of sesame or possibly an element of five spice to its seared outer surface. Also like the venison though that surprise was short lived, the meat under seasoned, in this case, I’m afraid to the point of blandness, and the accompanying pumpkin, gnocchi and prunes all similarly soft and yielding and monotonously sweet.
The problem was not that the food was bad, far from it, each element served up was perfectly realized, it was just that all the elements put together occupied too narrow a spectrum of the available ranges of flavour and texture. There were no spikes on either graph. Everything was sweet and soft, with very little contrast, no counterpoints of sour, bitter or sharp, crunchy or chewy. The only item across four dishes between us that had any real bite were those carrots, the only challenge to the tastebuds, that andouillette, of which, by this point, I was thinking rather fondly.
In a sense that’s worse, in a restaurant you want to like, than it would be to catch them on an off night in the kitchen. If you felt they’d cocked up, you could give them another chance; if you’re left with the impression that the kitchen has delivered everything the chef intended, and it’s left you cold, then there’s not a lot of point. You just have to concede that your palate and the chef’s are incompatible. And in the case of Arbutus, for me, that’s a terrible shame because there is so much about the place to like and admire – if only that included the food, I could truly love it.
We finished with a carafe of dessert wine and a coffee, and split the bill in the end. At forty quid a head - for a Michelin starred restaurant, in Soho - it was, in many ways, a bargain. Sadly, it just didn’t rate as a treat.