In early 2012 Quo Vadis reopened after a short refurbishment with a bright new look and a new chef, Jeremy Lee, lured away from The Blueprint Café, where he was head chef since 1995. Jeremy was a finalist in The Great British Menu 2007, and before his long stint at The Blueprint Café cooked at the late lamented Soho restaurant Alistair Little, at Bibendum under Simon Hopkinson and was head chef at both The Frith Street restaurant and Euphorium in Islington.
The dining room feels lighter and roomier, seating up to 75 diners at capacity; an attractive display of fruits in the foyer now greets arriving customers. The menu was less fancy and cheaper than previously, firmly in bistro territory: starters were £5.50 - £8.50, main courses £14 – £18.50, desserts £5.50. The wine lists started at £19 but mark-ups were not particularly kind. Josmeyer Pinot Blanc 2010 was priced at £36 for a wine that retails at £9, Chateau Le Puy 2006 was £70 for a wine you can find in the high street for £19, and a (misspelt) Chateau Batailley 1998 was £96 for a wine you can find for £34. There were just a couple of prestige offerings, such as Latour 1995 at £800 for a wine that retails at £433. It was nice to see that breads are now made from scratch, with a choice of white or sourdough slices. Personally I think a little more salt in the process would have been useful, but the bread had good texture (5/10).
I started with a toasted eel sandwich (£6.50). Although a simple idea, this worked well, the eel flavoured with horseradish and a little mustard, served with sourdough toast, served with red onions. The key to the success of this was the quality of the eel. Often in London restaurants present cheap, tasteless slabs of smoked eel; the eel here is supplied by The Dutch Eel Company, and had excellent flavour. Of course ultimately this is just a toasted sandwich, but the care and attention put into such a simple thing was telling (5/10).
I also enjoyed a pie of duck and pheasant, which had a generous amount of tender meat, nice pastry topping and in this case good seasoning (4/10). This was served with mash, and I also ordered some cabbage and carrots, which were properly cooked but again seemed under-seasoned to me (3/10). Dessert was a lemon posset topped with rhubarb, another simple dish but one which needs to be properly made; here the lemon, sugar and cream of the posset were in excellent balance, the rhubarb adding a little extra acidity and an additional texture (4/10).
The bill came to £37 for lunch just with tap water. Service was adequate, though neither waiter that I encountered seemed to have the notion of topping up drinks deeply ingrained within them. I prefer the new incarnation of Quo Vadis, both in terms of decor and food: it is brighter to look at and the food has clean, simple flavours.
What follows are notes from before Jeremy Lee took over.
The iconic Quo Vadis, once a Marco Pierre White bastion, has a makeover from the owners of Fino and Barrafina. The low-ceilinged room now has yellow walls, wooden floor and modern prints on the walls, but the stained glass windows remain. Under the new ownership, where is Quo Vadis going? Firmly in bistro rather than tapas territory on the long menu, with dishes such as smoked salmon, steak tartar and rack of lamb. There was even that nasty 1970s relic, a cover charge: £2 gets you bread, olives and filtered tap water.
The wine list has well chosen growers from around the world, with mark-ups that seem less steep as you move up the list. The superb Alion 2003 is listed at £62 for a wine that costs over £30 in a shop, while the wonderfully named Innocent Bystander 2006 Pinot Gris is priced at £34 for a wine that has a retail price of around £12. Au Bon Climat Wild Boy Chardonnay is 2006 is £37 for a wine that you can buy for just over £12 retail. The bread, slices of white and brown, is served warm and is pleasant rather than dazzling, but full marks for making it from scratch (5/10).
A starter of tomato essence with crayfish (£12.50) did not go down well with my knowledgeable dining companion; for a dish like this to impress you really need superb tomatoes, and these were merely decent. Better was my crab linguine (£9.50), the pasta having good texture, perhaps a little light on crab but with a pleasing chilli bite (4/10). The old classic of Dover Sole (£25) simply grilled was cooked well enough, if a touch longer than ideal, served on the bone and tasting fine (3/10). This was served with excellent crisp chips (5/10). Vegetables are extra e.g. £3.75 for the chips, while a fennel and heritage tomato salad (£3.50) was OK when it finally put in an appearance (after a reminder). Pigeon was cooked a fraction longer than optimal also, but was quite enjoyable, with a garnish of mushrooms and a pool of the cooking juices (3/10). Summer pudding was better than many, with blackcurrants giving nice depth of colour, though there was a lot of bread in relation to the fruit (4/10).
There is a lot to like about Quo Vadis, with its appealing menu, cosy feel and forgiving wine list. Yet the bill mounts up. Three courses with a fairly modest bottle of wine and a £22 half bottle of dessert wine still came to around £95 a head. The restaurant’s web site listed tonight a menu whose prices are significantly lower in places than the actual menu (chips are £3.75, not £3 as shown on the on-line menu, the Dover Sole was £25, not £21.50 as shown on-line), for which there is no excuse, especially given the place has only been open a few weeks.
Service was efficient but rather brisk, with a distinct feeling of being hurried at the beginning (this following a phone reminder about the limited slot time of our reservation). Wine was topped up well, even if it had the all too common if rather annoying over-pouring of the last glass followed by “another bottle?” This came out more as a demand than a request, and pretty absurd given that we were on the last mouthful of our main course at that moment. I see they have recruited the excellent manageress from The Devonshire, who can hopefully inject some much-needed charm into the service experience. The main issue seems to me value for money on the food itself (the wine list was fairly innocent in this regard), as with quite high main course prices, extra charge for vegetables and that little cover charge, the bill is at a level at which Karl Marx would not approve if he was still living above the dining room.
For purely historic interest, here is a review from May 2001.
Another successful Marco Pierre White venue, originally involving Damien Hirst. Now, however, the art on the walls is Marco’s own rather than the Damien’s, which shows nothing if not self-confidence from the owner. The dining room is split into several sections, and although low-ceilinged, the lovely old building with its stained glass windows still exudes style, though the room is rather dark. The kitchen never stretches itself beyond its capabilities, a rare and admirable trait in a restaurant – the menu is long and appealing. Here are notes from one of my meals there. Risotto Milanese (with saffron) was excellent, not a creamy mush as so often seems to happen these days, but a dish in which the arborio rice is soft but retains its integrity - the saffron flavour was rich but was kept nicely in check (5/10).
Main course was a pricey spit-roasted Bresse pigeon, cooked pink and full of flavour, but rather let down by a somewhat watery jus which badly needed additional reduction, though an accompanying pair of little ravioli of wild mushrooms were excellent, and a medley of vegetables were cooked well enough (5/10). Dessert was best of all, a stunning lemon tart in which the pastry was delicate the filling a perfect balance of sweetness and acidity, so easy to say but so difficult to achieve (7/10 easily).
Coffee was fairly generous double espresso of good quality (5/10). The wine list was very fine, scouring the world for top notch producers, though prices were not generous - a pretty standard three times retail throughout. JJ Prum Kabinett was a relative bargain, while there are plenty of wines by the glass, and a strong suit of dessert wines e.g. Bonny Doon Muscat by the glass. Service was very good throughout, with attention easily obtained, water and wine topped up without prompting, and a generally formal but efficient air. The cooking now has lost the edge it had on opening, but is still reliable, and I recently sat on the next table to Marco himself eating there, which at least shows that he takes an interest in his own restaurants.