Originally in Marylebone and under different ownership, the kitchen of Canvas has since early 2015 been under the direction of chef Aguilar Bel. Mr Bel has worked in the past in serious kitchens such as Can Fabes and Akelarre. The style of food is European rather than particularly Spanish. The dining room is reached down several flights of stairs, a room with tiled floor and a separate bar on one side, a private dining room one floor up. Tables were well spaced but very small, the chairs fairly comfortable. Just as when this was its previous incarnation Le Cercle, the room lacks much atmosphere, and this evening the lights were set to gloomy, so much so that people on the next table resorted to a torch to read the menu.
The wine list has a little under two hundred labels, ranging in price from £28 to £590, with an unusually high median price of £84 and an average markup of a touch over three times retail price. Examples were Pinot Noir 2012 ‘Are You Game?’ from Fowles Wines at £35 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for £13, Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2013 at £56 for a bottle that retails at £22, and Chianti Classico Castello di Fonterutoli 2010 at £88 for a wine that will set you back £31 in a shop. At the posh end of the list, Château Haut-Bailly 2000 was £215 for a bottle that retails at £66, and Chateau Palmer 1989 was £555 for a label with a current market price of £266.
A pair of nibbles began the meal. A variant on gazpacho from Cordoba called salmorejo was made from tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and vinegar (no peppers as a traditional gazpacho would have) and was poured over crabmeat and, rather oddly, a strawberry. The salmorejo had good flavour and worked well with the crab, though I was confused by the fruit (13/20). This was followed by pil pil cod brandade, which had pleasant texture and avoided over-saltiness from the brandade (13/20). Bread was sourdough from Boulangerie de Paris, one of the best commercial bakeries in London.
Scallops (£15.50) were pan-fried and served with asparagus, pine nut mayonnaise and Iberico ham. The scallops were quite sweet and delicately cooked, the asparagus good and the Spanish ham working nicely with the shellfish (14/20). Ravioli (£11.50) of roasted vegetables and smoked aubergine was covered in a Parmesan foam and tomato crumble. The pasta had good texture and the aubergine plenty of flavour, the rich foam adding an extra dimension to the dish (14/20).
Challans duck (£25.50) came in three forms. The breast was grilled, and then leg and wing were slow-cooked, served with carrots, peas, parsley puree and garnished with pea shoots. The high quality duck was properly cooked and the accompaniments worked well to balance the richness of the meat (14/20). Lobster (£28) was served with roasted cauliflower puree and quinoa. The shellfish was tender and had pleasing sweetness of flavour, the quinoa providing a pleasant textural contrast. The only issue was that the dish was not quite as hot as it might have been when it was delivered, not helped by the cold plate (13/20).
A mousse of Guanaja chocolate (£10) was velvety and rich, served with cherry puree that provided a touch of acidity, and crème fraiche ice cream. This worked well, nicely balanced (14/20). I also enjoyed a refreshing white peach dessert (£8.50), the fruit ripe and glazed with honey, served alongside a vanilla crumble and prosecco foam (14/20).
Coffee was Musetti and decent enough. Our waiter was excellent, friendly, knowledgeable and helpful. The bill came to £96 with a bottle of nice Paulinshof Riesling Kabinett 2011 (£44 compared to a retail price of £20) to share and a single glass of dessert wine. A typical cost per head might be around £87 if you shared a modest bottle of wine. This is not cheap, although to be fair the ingredients, such as the Challans duck, were of good quality. Overall this was an enjoyable meal, the menu quite appealing and the cooking capable, the service excellent. The main question in my mind is what else could be eaten in central London at this price point. The room was unnecessarily gloomy and the basement spot is not one of the capital’s better dining spaces. This and its slightly ambitious pricing may limit its appeal more than the food, which was really quite good.