Anthony Demetre used to run Putney Bridge, a restaurant that gained a Michelin star but always struggled for profitability. Arbutus and its sister Wild Honey eschew the fine dining concept and aim at simple, well-executed food at a moderate price point. The décor at Arbutus is stripped back: bare wooden floor and simple but tasteful plain walls with limited adornment, though its tablecloths were white linen. Service was stretched tonight and the dishes took some time to appear, but it seems that they did 120 covers this evening so perhaps this was forgivable: certainly the place was packed out. It is open every day, lunch and dinner, and is aiming at Paris bistro style.
Notes from my most recent meal follow.
Arbutus serves simple bistro food, capably cooked. Starters on an evolving menu ranged from £5.95 for a vegetable, chorizo and chick pea soup to £9.95 or smoked eel, beetroot and horseradish cream. Main courses were from £11.95 for Welsh black beef cottage pie to £18.95 for bouillabaisse. Desserts were all £5.95, with cheese unusually priced per serving of cheese (£2.95 for each slice).
Bread is bought in from the Exeter Street bakery, just white and brown slices, and quite pleasant (15/20). For the starter I had Dorset crab salad, the white meat offered simply, the brown meat on a sliver of toast, alongside a garlic mayonnaise with a few leaves. This was pleasant and simple, but I cannot score it higher than 14/20. My companion’s braised pig's head was served with potato puree and caramelised onions, and was fine, but really only 13/20. My sea bass was actually line-caught and timed well, served with crushed Jersey Royal potatoes and simple parsley vinaigrette; this was pleasant but there is nothing here to lift it above 14/20.
My lemon tart suffered from poor pastry, really hard and crumbly, with a filling that was much too tart (12/20). My companion’s vanilla cheesecake was better, having a pleasant base, nice flavor and some good strawberries as a garnish (15/20). Service was friendly and efficient. This was a pleasant meal, but with the best will in the world it was 14/20 level.
Below is a June 2006 meal, by way of comparison.
At 20:00 the sardine starter I wanted was already finished, but smoked eel was good, served simply alongside a few salad leaves and a pile of rather watery beetroot that I suspect came from a jar; a little scoop of horseradish cream was a positive addition to the dish, the horseradish flavour subtle but distinct (14/20). Chilled soup of cucumber was presented as a jar of soup to be poured over a soup plate lined with a little smoked salmon and crème fraiche with borage flowers. Good presentation but the cucumber soup lacked flavour (11/20). My wife’s gnocchi with Parmesan and summer vegetables had good texture and a pleasing taste (13/20) while my chicken breast was served with its skin on and was in a pool of buttery veloute with peas. The chicken was cooked through well but was rather tasteless, and the supposed foie gras in the dish was absent, which was rather cheeky. Bread was just white and brown slices, the white a little better than the brown, and were pleasant (14/20).
Raspberry trifle worked well (13/20) as did a slice of vanilla cheesecake served with a pile of English strawberries that were rather tasteless (12/20). Coffee was good (15/20). The wine list is excellent, two pages of wines from around the world, mostly available in bottle but also in 250cl carafe, a great idea. There is a also a fine wine section with growers such as Guigal, and these wines are actually quite fairly priced e.g. La Mouline at £255 is only twice retail if you can find it. The mark-ups in general seemed about twice retail + VAT, maybe a little more.
The problem I found was that the menu is not that appealing. They have really gone for profit here. The starters were pigs head, sardines, boudin blanc, ricotta salad, cucumber soup, chicken, eel and a squid and mackerel "burger". OK, they are priced between £5.95 and £9.95, with main courses £12.50 to £15.50 (desserts around £5) but there still must be some pretty hefty gross margins here. The ingredients were also not of high quality e.g. tasteless chicken, poor strawberries, which is a shame. Technique was mostly good, and the ingredients reasonably harmonious. The ex-Putney Bridge chef seems to have learnt the lesson about the need for profitability which always eluded Putney Bridge. Things are not great for people who do not eat meat, with one vegetarian main dish, a dish of pollock and one of sea bream only. Their PR company has done a great job for them with some great write-ups in the nationals, but for me this is not Michelin star level cooking.