Shall we go to The Orrery? Lovely, I hear myself saying. Do we have to? says my heart.
I’ve been here at least five times, but I’ve never booked it myself and given that it’s an obvious choice for a bit of client-related faine daining I wanted to think about why that is.
And I want to be able to say something positive, because, on the current showing, the food is good. Nothing at all wrong with it. Fairly traditional, French in style, delicate and pretty, it is of a quality I would expect from a central London Michelin star holder. I liked the staff, who were friendly and they didn’t bat an eyelid at my request to recharge my iPhone somewhere nearby and spent a few minutes looking for a suitable socket.
But I just can’t get excited over this place. The room doesn’t help. Lacking in character and unwelcoming, it’s long, narrow and very bright, with tables placed on either side – one of those places where people rubberneck as you walk past. Which I hate.
And I was sent right to the back of the restaurant, to an area so private it was almost fully enclosed. The client, who turned up after me, jokingly queried whether my choice of table was a signifier for something more intimate. If we’d have wanted to have an affair it would have been perfect. As it was, it meant that we were entirely cut off from the main drag and all the tables in our (limited) sight line were empty. The restaurant was about a third full when we left.
So I had the ballotine of salmon
It was first outing for that dish, they said. It looked very pretty, but it was fairly bland. I followed it with the sea bass. That was much better and the citrus zest worked very well with the fish.
We didn’t have dessert because both of us are pretending that we are watching what we are eating. We watched ourselves eat quite a lot of bread though.Is it just my knee-jerk response to the fact that it was originally a Conran restaurant? Do the words Conran restaurant just automatically prejudice me against it? And if they do, is that fair?
I think, that some of my prejudice dates back to the late 80′s and the Pont de la Tour glory days. I thought it was overpriced mediocrity for City boys with too much to spend. I disliked the whole image and the excess. But, that overblown exuberance doesn’t quite work anymore, so I can’t use that excuse.
And D&D, who took over the Conran name in 2006 do operate well designed, safe restaurants. They are, it has to be said, fairly formulaic, albeit professional, slick and generally consistent. Not The Avenue, though. That was simply poor. And just as with certain hotel chains, it’s a case of wherever you are, you know what you’re going to get, even though the wrapper may be very different.
And yes, whilst each restaurant has its own feel and personality, (to a point), each is recognizably from the “Conran” stable. And perhaps that is what’s key to my lack of enthusiasm. To me, these are upmarket themed joints, carefully aimed a target customer. Who isn’t me.
The owners are primarily businessmen and not restaurateurs. The restaurants are for people for whom the certainty and the safety is key. They want well-cooked and competent food, but they don’t want food that’s experimental. They won’t, I suspect, be beating their path down to John Salt, for example.
And I don’t want to be too sniffy about that, because not everyone is that bothered about wanting the food to be as good as it can be. Some people want a different style of restaurant. Some people like blockbusters and would never go see an indie movie. And who am I to tell them they shouldn’t enjoy it?
A lot of people just like the whole Conran package and the familiarity of it. They don’t have to think about it too hard. And I’m not saying that I want to have to exercise the grey matter each time I go out to eat but I do, if I’m pushing the Michelin boat out, want something a little memorable. But that’s fine when I’m paying.
So, next time a client suggests I go to the Orrery? I’ll still say lovely. Because if that’s what they want, why should I argue. It’s not like I don’t get to go to the places I like. And there are worse things in life than being slightly underwhelmed in a Michelin-starred restaurant.