The restaurant is on the site of what was a MacDonalds, upstairs at the Whiteleys shopping centre. You can access the restaurant through a dedicated entrance on Porchester Gardens or from the centre itself. It is Rowley Leigh’s first venture of his own after a long stint as head chef as the stunningly successful Kensington Place, a restaurant that epitomised modern British cooking. There is a lot to like about the place. The room has attractive art deco lamps, and its spacious interior is cleverly laid out so as to avoid it appearing like a barn. The kitchen is open to the dining room, and as you walk through you see (and feel the heat of) the rotisserie, with assorted animals turning on a spit, which is a fine way to set the mood. The floor is carpeted rather than being plain wood, and there is no pesky muzak, so you can actually have a conversation without shouting. Moreover the menu is very appealing, lengthy and with all sorts of classic dishes: grilled Dover sole, various roasts, sherry trifle.
The menu is lengthy and appealing, with the wine list printed on the back. It is perhaps taking the French bistro thing a little far to have the wine list so predominantly French, with just some Italian reds and a few token European Rieslings for variety (especially since the cooking here is as British as it gets). The prices rise steeply, with only a few choices under £50 a bottle. Even the irritating “cover charge” has sneaked up to £1.80.
A starter of scallops with bak choi and oriental dressing had correctly cooked scallops and fairly well cooked vegetables, though the soy-sauce based dressing could have been a little punchier (3/10). Grouse was served whole and served with game chips, and a little pot of excellent gravy of the cooking juices (4/10). Halibut looked as if it was a little on the dry side, but on cutting the fish, the fillet was fine, though it was a workmanlike rather than exciting dish (3/10). Vanilla cheesecake with passion fruit sauce was enjoyable, the base good, the filling having an enjoyable softness, the passion fruit sauce enlivening the dish (5.10). Similarly, apricot and almond tart had good pastry and plenty of fruit flavour (5/10). Service was knowledgeable and reasonably efficient. I found this less good than my last meal here, but still a pleasant experience. However at £90 a head with no drinks, no coffee and a fairly cheap bottle of wine, the bill mounts up.
Below are notes from a meal in December 2008.
This latest meal was a more consistent experience than the one that I had during the soft opening, as indeed one might expect. I find the room very attractive, with its art deco style lights and clever layout, and the menu is as wide and appealing as ever. It is heartening to see such a wide range of attractive dishes, printed on a huge card, reminding me of the menus of Marco’s places in their heyday, such as the old Mirabelle. On this weekday night this huge place was pretty much full, which is a testament to its appeal.
I had a much better tasting version of eel and bacon salad than last time, which had a particularly tasty piece of eel, but the little pieces of bacon (I suspect pancetta rather than English bacon) were also excellent, the salad lightly dressed with a better made dressing than last time (5/10). A little hor d’oeuvres of herring and potato salad had particularly impressive herrings, which are so often disappointing in the UK (6/10 for the herring). A “little Caesar” salad was also capable, with fresh lettuce nice dressing, good croutons and Parmesan (5/10).
Mackerel fillets were enjoyable, served with pine nuts, rosemary and apple sauce (4/10). A grouse was served whole, offered with game chips (i.e. potato crisps) bread chips and gravy. The grouse was nicely cooked and had good gamey taste, and I was particularly impressed with the very thin and light game chips. The gravy was a little thin, but this was still a very enjoyable dish (5/10). Gratin dauphinoise as a side dish was quite well made, a little more liquid than I would ideally like (4/10) while spinach was good; the only let down was in with a bland red cabbage. For me the best way to enliven red cabbage is with a little sweet and sour effect from vinegar and diced apples, as without this it can be a dull tasting dish, as it was here (2/10).
Desserts did not quite sustain the same standard. Pear Belle Helene had ripe pears with chocolate sauce on a bed of vanilla ice cream and was very pleasant (4/10) but sherry trifle did not work out so well. I’m not sure the crystallised violets add anything, and while there was a decent slug of sherry, there should be more sponge, fruit and custard where here there was mostly cream (just about 3/10). Overall this seemed to me on the border between 4/10 and 5/10 cooking, but I'll give it the benefit of the doubt.
The bill was £80 a head with a £40 bottle of wine and one pre-dinner drink. Prices are not excessive but creep up higher than you might expect since vegetables are extra and there is even a ludicrous £1.50 “cover charge”, something I find entirely cynical. Service was, to be honest, pretty inept. Our perfectly pleasant waitress hardly spoke any English, was barely able to open a bottle of wine, slopped an absurd amount of wine into our glasses when she finally figured out how to use the corkscrew, though fortunately she left well alone after the initial pour. She happily left our finished plates on the table for minutes while she laid an empty table nearby, oblivious to any attempt to get her attention. The epitaph on her tombstone should be: “God finally caught her eye”.
The notes below are from the soft opening in November 2007.
Tables are admittedly quite small, so much so that when our main course arrived they had to put the wine and bread basket on the neighbouring table (no fear, this was still within easy reach). Starters are mostly around £7, main courses £15 - £21, with vegetables extra at £3, desserts are £4.50 - £7.50. Bizarrely there is a cover charge of £1.50, an unpleasant habit I had hoped had died out. All you get for this is some white or brown slices of (decent but unexciting) bread. There are in fact several hors d’oeuvres, but these are £3 extra. I tried the mackerel teriyaki, a rare departure from the fairly classical menu, and this had good mackerel, a quite light version of teriyaki sauce and a roll of slightly pickled cucumber (5/10).
Service was amiable but disorganised. Wine was erratically topped up, and when I left most of my dessert (see later) the waiter merely smiled and removed the dish without asking whether there was any problem. The wine list is entirely old world, with France and Italy featuring and a few German wines e.g. we had the excellent Maximin Grunhauser Riesling Spatlese 2000 Von Schubert for £36 (retail price £8.58 if you look carefully). Louis Roederer champagne is £55, Jaboulet 2004 Petite Hermitage 2004 £65 (retail £24.83). They had the annoying habit of selling dessert wine by 100ml measures rather than 125ml without declaring this, though they were very nice about it when I pointed this out, and perhaps this will change (editor's note: it now has).
A starter of eel salad had frissee lettuce, smoked eel served unusually as thin slices, and a few pieces of bacon. This was pleasant enough, though I’d have preferred the eel in more conventional pieces, where its texture in particular would be more apparent (3/10). Pumpkin soup tasted of pumpkin, but had a watery stock base, and was a little over-sweet. This was served with pieces of cheddar cheese and good croutons as garnish (2/10). Dover sole was roasted correctly and attractively presented whole at the table; it did not have especially great taste but was served with a good bearnaise sauce (4/10). My French partridge was the best dish, nicely roasted, served with Savoy cabbage leaves that unfortunately suffered from the top one being burnt to a crisp, with some more bacon (5/10 if I pretend the cabbage did not happen).