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Arbutus

63 Frith Street, London, England, W1D 3JW, United Kingdom

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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.

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  • David W

    I'm surprised at the negativity here. I personally have found the cooking at Arbutus to be some of the best I have eaten anywhere in the UK - at any level. The first meal I had there was almost faultless over 6 dishes; something I have never experienced before or since! Also, their pre/post theatre dinners are shockingly good value at £17 for three courses.

  • Lorraine

    The restaurant with its unremarkable decor is similar to an suburban restaurant reaching high for a michelin star and coming up with a handful of dirt. The waitress seemed fresh from a european kindergarten unable to converse efficiently in English using instead an index finger to point rather than talk; the time between courses was supersonic, and having barely finsihed one course another was swiftly plonked down before you, as you washed down the last mouthful of the other; the lemon tart, not so tart and lacking in zest, the risotto bravely underseasoned but the chick pea soup, albeit lacking in quantity, had a divine taste of subtle spice and pefectly seasoned broth. All in all a surprising restaurant to be in possesion of a michelin star, not worth the trip from fulham but ok for a last minute pre-theatre bite.

  • londonrestaurant

    I hadn't realised at first that you score on the Good Food Guide System, but now I've read that I can see why you score it a 4. If you compare GFG ratings with Michelin its not unusual for 1* to be anywhere between a 4 and a 7, with pretty much even distribution in that range. Personally I'd rate Arbutus a 5 on the GFG system (they rated it a 7 last time I looked, which does seem high), so I think that the Michelin quality is just there, but stylistically I'd agree its very different to what Michelin normally like. I reviewed it here on my blog http://londonrestaurant.blog.co.uk/2007/08/15/arbutus_63_64_frith_street_w1d_3jw_soho_~2810868

  • Paul

    I really do agree. Having been to 3/4 of the starred places in London, I think it comfortably the lowest. Were Michelin wowed by the admittedly great wine carafes? Food is no way worth a star and the waiting staff aren't even professionals.

  • Norman Hui

    Shown to a blind corner next to the entrance at the empty bar as that's "where lone diners prefer" when I turned up at 18:30 to a sparsely populated dining room. They relented and gave me a table but warned they need it back by 20:30. Food totally unremarkable for the price, can't see how it won an award. Wine is OK. Maybe they deserve a return visit and a choice from the a la carte menu.

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