It had been over a decade since I have been to Joe Allen, a basement restaurant that used to be one of the coolest places in London to dine out, admittedly back in the 1980s. Its exposed brick walls were adorned with theatre posters, and it even has a far from secret “secret” menu option – a hamburger. It is supposed to be an American diner in London. Well, the dining area is poorly lit (which is very New York), but by peering into the gloom it was possible to make out some menu choices. The wine list was printed in the back of the menu and had choices such as McHenry Shiraz Hohnen 2009 for £28 compared to a retail price of £9, Firesteed Pinot Noir 2008 at £37 for a wine that retails at £13, and Aloxe Corton Latour 2006 priced at £66 compared to a shop price of about £25.
Caesar salad was actually entirely decent, with crisp lettuce and croutons, egg and enough lemon juice and pepper to liven it up (at least 12/20). By contrast, black bean soup (£5.50) had remarkably little taste and needed more seasoning (10/20). Garlic bread (£3.50) on the side was a nonsensical tiny plate of toast that was essentially raw on one side and yet was rock hard, possibly once acquainted with garlic – laughably awful (4/20).
A USDA fillet steak (£21.50) was just fine, cooked properly and served with horseradish mash that had some hint of spicy horseradish, though sweet and sour onions added nothing (12/20). Also perfectly decent was a chili con carne (what was the last time you saw this on a restaurant menu?) with rice and sour cream, the mince decent and the spice balance about right (13/20). Grilled salmon (£18.50) with chunky chips, cherry tomatoes and caper and lime mayonnaise was remarkably tasteless (10/20). A lobster roll (£16.50) was OK in itself but served with truly awful matchstick chips that were dismally soggy (10/20 given the chips).
The vanilla cheesecake was one of the most dismal things I have put in my mouth for some time: I will not dwell on this tasteless monstrosity, but one bite was one more than I wish I had taken (2/20). This is a tricky place to score. There were a few competent elements in the meal here, so it is difficult to dismiss it entirely, yet the poor dishes were really, really bad. The bill came to £65 a head, which was way more than could ever be justified for what turned up on the plate. Service was very basic. London dining has moved on in the last twenty years but Joe Allen has not.