This week I try Harrison’s and High Timber

Saturday, May 09th , 2009

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Harrrison’s is sister to Sam’s Brasserie, run by Sam Harrison (and part owned by Rick Stein). The front-of-house operation is slick, and the atmosphere pleasant, drawing in plenty of customers to the quite large premises (previously owned by the Soho House group). Having an open kitchen is always a bonus, as it is fun to see the chefs in action. The menu is simple bistro fare, and well made, though I found dishes consistently under-seasoned, and I think the ingredients could be better sourced. An enjoyable place nonetheless.
Talking of sibling restauramts, High Timber is sister to Vivat Bacchus, and is a City steak house owned by a South African wine company. In this case there is a genuine river view (just by the Millennium Bridge) and a wine cellar that apparently has 40,000 bottles, though this was not apparent on the short wine list that was presented. The steaks were fine, but there were some schoolboy errors (cold scallops, a lack of seasoning) amongst some surprisingly good dishes (excellent sausages, very good fondant). Service was an amiable shambles, but the raucous City boys who seemed to be the main clientele were doubtless untroubled by any little slips. This was not a patch on Hawksmoor, but would certainly be a good place to go if you want a steak with a view.
Madhu’s and the Brilliant are not strictly sister restaurants, but are run by different members of the same family.   Madhu’s has undergone a couple of major facelifts in recent years, and was the first “smart” Southall restaurant, though it still very much caters for Asian families. It has also built up into the largest caterer for Indian weddings in the UK, so in a sense the restaurant is almost an advert for the catering business.  This week I particularly enjoyed tender and spicy achari prawns, and a new dish, fried cauliflower and broccoli in a lively tamarind coating.
The Princess Victoria is an excellent West London gastropub which has been attractively refurbished and serves food that is well above average, as well as having a strikingly good wine list. The menu is seasonal, and this week included excellent grilled Kent asparagus. A sea bass fillet was also tasty and well-seasoned, with full-flavoured pea puree. Simple food, but well-made and with better ingredients that is normal for a pub.
I have been going to Pied a Terre ever since the days of Richard Neat (the chef before Tom Aikens). These days Shane Osborne leads the kitchen with a less ostentatiously complex menu. The kitchen was on good form when I visited, particularly good dishes including a tuna tartare dish (pictured) and a lovely hazelnut dessert. While some big name restaurants in London barely change their menu, here there is plenty going on. The menu today included seasonal English asparagus and ultra-seasonal Alphonso mango featured in a dessert, showing a desire to get the best of currently available ingredients rather than slavishly following tried and tested dishes. I find this encouraging, and a feature that is all too rare in some of London’s most famous dining rooms. 
One thing that struck me this week was how robust business appeared to be at every one of the five restaurants I visited (and one of these was a lunch). It seems that places with a strong reputation or well-established brand are still attracting plenty of customers, but the figures suggest that this is far from universal. A recent report on the hospitality industry by Price Waterhouse Coopers found that restaurant insolvencies in the first three months of 2009 were up by a third compared with the already poor last quarter of 2008. Year-on-year restaurant bankruptcies are up 70%. Nonetheless, my personal anecdotal experience is that many restaurants seem to be bucking that trend, which is encouraging.