Muted at Morgan M – my review for The Lawyer Magazine

Morgan M

It’s never good to walk into a restaurant and find that there are only two tables occupied.  It doesn’t set the right tone.  The restaurant is quietly comfortable in feel, quite formal and decorated in muted Farrow and Ball colours on just the right side of quirky.  People have often said that the chef, Morgan Meunier, is one of the best but most underrated chefs in London, but I think he’s got his work cut out here.  Two weeks before Christmas and the restaurant is almost empty.  And in Smithfield.  A veritable Mecca for restaurant diners.  I know that they’ve only been open for 3 weeks, but when you compare that with other much more successful recent openings (Mishkin, Alyn Williams at the Westbury to name two), you do start wondering how they’re going to get things going.

And what of the food?  The menu is varied, complex and interesting.  There is an Autumn Menu of five courses for £50 and a great vegetarian menu for £46.  À la carte ranges from £9.50- £14 mark for starters with the most expensive main course at £27.50.  There are set lunches around £20 for two courses, which is fair value for the style of cooking on offer.  You’ll be very happy if you like game.

And the style of cooking is quite elaborate, with a lot happening on the plate – I ordered crayfish lobster cannelloni with tarragon, Jerusalem artichoke soubise, shellfish cappuccino.  It came at what I am advised is “restaurant hot” but is actually room temperature.  I know that flavour is meant to be more intense at that temperature, but actually, it just needed to be a little bit warmer.  The flavours were good though and interesting and a confident hand was at work.  There were a lot of intense sauces and reductions with this food, it was properly plated-up and prettily presented.  Most of the cooking is well-executed and properly flavoured, with good ingredients – an outstanding “extra” of roasted beetroot horseradish and beetroot ice cream was a great combination of texture and taste – worth a special mention.

Fussy minx that I am, I asked for two choices from the vegetarian set menu as my main course – not fancying either two fish dishes on offer; the Chicory Tarte Tatin, girolle and its velouté, parsley root purée – to be accompanied by the beetroot glazed with balsamic vinegar, goats cheese and pine nut biscuit.  The former was not particularly entrancing – a little bland – the pastry a little too chewy and the whole dish just not interesting enough, whereas the latter was knockout, completely overshadowing its bland neighbour..

And for dessert (which you have to order in advance – I’m not keen on that), more elaborate combinations await.  Not feeling highly adventurous, I went for the bog-standard dark chocolate moelleux, but with a twist: you choose whether you want 45% cocoa Barry milk chocolate or 70% Valhrona Guana.  I went for the 70%, being a lover of all things dark.  It was competent but – again – could have been warmer.  I could happily have given it a miss and listening to my skirt, I certainly should have done.

And I would like to tell you about the wine, but I wasn’t shown the wine list because, unusually, the deal was that they chose it for me.  Usually, when reviewing, one is, understandably, given a budget within which to work –you know, just in case you decide to celebrate with that special bottle of Chateau d’Yquem .  Did they think I would order inappropriately?  Very strange.  So I actually can’t tell you whether or not the wine was good value/varied/appropriate and there is nothing on their website to help – I can tell you they do a good Kir though.

So, why so empty?  Well, the chef, despite having a cult following in the greater Islington area, isn’t really well-known enough to just have people flock to him in the City because of his name.  As far as I know, this isn’t backed by big money, so the opening has been fairly low-key in publicity terms and it’s in an area not short of excellent restaurants – it has to compete with not dissimilar food at the fantastic and atmospheric Club Gascon round the corner and the new Bistro du Vin, not to mention St John and Smith’s, a mere stone’s throw away.  The look of the place is never really going to attract passing trade because you can’t see inside.  The downstairs wine bar was completely empty – you wouldn’t even know it was there, which is a mistake.  I felt very sorry for them, to be honest.  I also worry that if the place was full, the service would be compromised – at best I would have described it as leisurely.

So, they’re going to do have to do something else to get people through the door because unless they do, I can’t see how they’ll carry on.  And given that the chef can do the business, it would be a shame for this to disappear under the sea of local competition.

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