The combined intellectual resources of Caprice Holdings came up with the imaginative name 34 for their latest venture (it is 34 Grosvenor Square – you see what they did there?), in the restaurant family that includes Scotts and The Ivy, Rivington and J. Sheekey. As with its elder siblings, 34 aims at the well-off who like familiar dishes, good service and smart surroundings. Appropriately, 34 is situated in former bank premises, on the corner of Grosvenor Square and South Audley Street in the heart of Mayfair. The dining room is long and narrow, with a bar at one end and with a view into an open kitchen towards the other end. Chef Paul Brown has worked at other of the group restaurants, including a stint as head chef at Capricom, and has previously worked under Anthony Demetre at the (now closed) Putney Bridge. The dining room is well-appointed, with a partly tiled and partly wooden floor, art-deco style lighting and comfortable banquette seating. There was a piano by the bar, which at intervals this evening furnished live music; lighting was murky, hence my matching photos. Although the restaurant notionally specialises in beef, there is plenty of choice for the less carnivorous diner.
The wine list had just under 150 wines, ranging in price from £22 to £3,500, with an average price of £92. Mark-up levels reflect the location of the most desirable property on the Monopoly board, with an average mark-up of around 3.4 times retail price. Examples were Sauvignon Prestige 2010 Vigné-Lourac VdP des Cotes du Tarn at £26 for a wine you can buy for £6 in the shops, 2008 St Aubin Premier Cru Sentiers du Clou JM Vincent at £80 compared to a retail price of £17, and Chateau Léoville-Barton 1988 at £265 for a wine you can find for £70 in the high street. We drank the very enjoyable Rioja Reserva Tondonia 2001 López de Heredia at £74 for a wine that retails at £22. Mineral water was £4.50 a bottle. Bread was bought in from Miller bakery in Wandsworth, and was fine (14/20).
Shrimp cocktail (£15.75) was presented in a glass with several large prawns hanging over the side, with a salad of shredded lettuce, cucumber and chopped avocado; on the side was a quite spicy cocktail sauce. This was all pleasant enough, the prawns still in their shell, the salad fine (13/20). Seared yellowfin tuna (£14.75) was more interesting, the tuna lightly seared and served with a nicely balanced dressing of lime, avocado, seaweed and black pepper (14/20).
A range of different steaks were available, Scottish, Argentinian, US and Australian Wagyu. I tried a strip steak from Creekstone Farms, an Arkansas-based beef processing company that supply a number of well-known New York restaurants, such as Babbo and Balthazar. This Black Angus strip steak was aged for 35 days (£38 for 350g) and was served with a peppercorn sauce on the side. Steaks were cooked on a custom-made Argentine charcoal grill, but while competently cooked it was hard for me to get very excited about the meat, which lacked sufficient fat to give real depth of flavour; the peppercorn sauce was pleasant (13/20). If I want a really good steak I will stick to Goodman. Fries (£4.25) on the side were fairly crisp but quite salty, even for me (13/20). Green cabbage was nicely cooked though (14/20). Halibut was correctly cooked, a large fillet (as it might be at £26) with chervil-buttered kale, garnished with herbs (14/20).
Desserts were as appealing as the rest of the menu. My apple pie (£7) had good pastry but the apple used (Ribston Pippin) lacked sufficient tartness (13/20), though the vanilla ice cream with it was excellent. Vanilla doughnuts (£7) had decent texture yet for me lacked sufficient flavour in the filling; these were accompanied by suitably sharp lemon curd and also a chocolate sauce for dipping (12/20). Coffee was a hefty £3.75 for a double espresso, but at least had good flavour.
The service was very professional, with careful topping up of wine and water, and helpful waiting staff. However, quite why a restaurant at this price point feels the need to add a cover charge at £2 a person eludes me: I can’t imagine they get so many students popping in for some tap water and a salad that they need the cover charge to discourage a rash of such cheapskate diners? I suppose they have to help keep Caprice Holdings' handsome operating profit margin (21.6% in 2011) up somehow, but surely a cover charge is more likely to irritate diners rather than just folding an extra £2 into the food price? The bill came to over £120 a head. We had a decent bottle of wine, but no pre-dinner drinks or dessert wine, and this just seems to me too high a price for food at this level. Overall, there is little to dislike about 34 other than the bill: the menu is appealing if hardly ground-breaking, the cooking competent, yet at this price point we could have eaten a significantly higher quality meal, even in Mayfair. It is comfort food at an uncomfortable price.