Within the Royal Academy is The Keeper’s House, built in the 1870s as home to the head of the painting school there. From October 2013 this has been converted into a restaurant run by veteran restaurateur Oliver Peyton. Peyton’s place (sorry, couldn’t resist) seats 40 diners at one time and serves British food though the chef is actually Italian. Ivan Simeoli had worked four years ago at Osteria Francescan, but more recently at Mr Peyton’s restaurants at the National Dining Rooms and The Wallace Collection. The restaurant is open to the public for dinner only, but at lunch for members of the Royal Academy.
You enter through the Annenburg courtyard at the front of the Royal Academy. On the ground floor is a lounge area called the Belle Shenkman room, and the restaurant is downstairs. Not surprisingly, they are not short of art to decorate the spaces, with works from assorted members of the Royal Academy on the walls. Starters were priced at £8.50 to £12.50, main courses £14.50 to £25.50, side dishes £3.90 and desserts £8.50 to £9.50, with cheese at £12.50.
The wine list had quite broad coverage of different regions, and started at £17.50. Example wines included Chateau Termes Mauzac 2011 at £24 for a wine that you can find in the high street for about £7, Eden Valley High End Road Chardonnay 2012 at £33 for a wine that appears in shops at around £16, and Antinori Tignanello 2009 at £150 for a wine that will set you back about £68 to buy. We drank the lovely Chateau Musar 2004 at £55 for a wine that retails at around £22.
The basement dining room had a green screen in front of the walls, a slightly slippery wooden floor and cream upholstery. There was a rather odd problem with the lights on the night on our visit, so throughout the evening the lighting went from pleasant to dark to bright and back through that cycle at occasional intervals; I presume this was just teething troubles.
Sourdough bread was baked from scratch in the kitchen, and had good flavour. However the first batch that came out was overbaked, so was too hard; a second batch was fine (14/20 for the second batch). Clay-baked potatoes with summer truffle and artichoke (£8.50) were set out in a crescent to one side of the plate; I am not sure about this as a presentation technique, but each to his own. The potatoes were cooked through OK in their grey clay but had limited flavour, and summer truffles rarely add much other than their appearance to a dish, though the artichoke puree had reasonable flavour (11/20). Cured mackerel with fennel, sea vegetables and pickled green tomato was surprisingly subdued, and with such a simple dish it is all about the key ingredient; here the mackerel just didn’t taste of very much at all (11/20).
Sea bass (£19.50) had a very dark appearance but the flesh was cooked properly, and had pleasant flavour. However the chard with it was reduced to a slimy texture, the ring of parsley sauce giving a rather metallic note (11/20, but I would have scored this higher if the fish had just been presented on its own). My hare loin with trompette mushrooms, sour onions and pink fir potatoes lacked seasoning, and although it appeared correctly cooked had remarkably little flavour for what is normally quite a distinctive meat. Unfortunately the jus in which it rested was watery, so this did not function as a hare restorer (10/20). Pink fir potato and leek hash was cooked properly but entirely lacked seasoning (11/20). A plate of three cheeses with figs was fine.
Service was well-meaning, though it took quite a while to get going. It was over 45 minutes from sitting down to when our starters arrived. The staff were nice about removing things from the bill that we had not finished without being requested, so in the end the bill was just £38 a head. A typical three-course meal with a modest wine, coffee and service would come to around £65 or so. I really wanted to like The Keepers House, with its unusual, peaceful setting and its home-made bread. However I struggled with the lack of flavour in both my starter and main, and the chard with the fish was simply not pleasant. Perhaps the kitchen needs to find higher quality ingredients in some cases (I exempt the sea bass) but I did not enjoy this meal very much. Perhaps it will improve after it has been running for a longer period of time.