The Martin brothers have a series of successful gastropubs, including the lauded Gun in Docklands, but now they have branched out into a brasserie on the north east corner of Sloane Square. Bearing in mind that this only opened weeks ago, the first thing to strike a visitor was the energy of the place. Crowds of people spilled out from the bar onto the pavement, and just getting to the reception desk through the hordes of drinkers was a challenge.
The dining room itself had plenty of natural light, the low-ceilinged room having picture windows onto the street, plus ceiling spot lights, side lamps and vaguely art deco style light fittings. On one wall was an illuminated set of pictures of botanical specimens. The seating was a mix of banquettes and wooden chairs with beige upholstery, and there was the compulsory wooden floor that all modern restaurants are required to have. This did not help the noise level, which was deafening (there was also some background music, but it was hard to make out what this actually was above the hubbub). Since the noise levels were marginally lower than that at a heavy metal concert, I would suggest that the background music was superfluous.
I’m not sure if the décor could be characterised as feminine, but on the night of our visit there was an unusual ratio of around three female diners to every male. The statistical oddity was compounded by the fact that 98% of these appeared to have blond hair, which could suggest a serious melanin shortage in the immediate area or that almost the entire clientele of the Botanist come from Finland. Another possibility suggests itself, but I am too polite to mention it.
The wine list runs to 16 pages, starting as low as £14 and with plenty of options in the £20 - £30 range. Mark-ups seem to vary significantly; a Montecillo Rioja 2006 was £42 for a wine that costs around £9 to buy, while the unfashionable Hugel Gewürztraminer 2006 was listed at £29 for a wine you can buy in the shops for around £11. The excellent Lebanese wine Chateau Musar 2000 was £45 compared to a retail price of around £13.
Bread was a choice of two rolls: cereal or onion, neither of which were very good. They were fresh enough, but warmed up so that they were almost crispy, and tasteless to boot (10/20) - surely this is easy enough to fix? I started with grilled quail (£9.50), partly deboned and properly cooked, served with chicory leaves and some lardons of Alsace bacon with a nicely balanced honey mustard vinaigrette (14/20). A Cornish crab and avocado cocktail (£6.50) appeared as a shaped cylinder with a thin layer of avocado with a few piece of tomato on a bed of lettuce, with a Marie Rose sauce, a simple dish nicely presented (13/20).
A main course seasonal salad was less good, with Stilton, rocket leaves, peas, cherry tomatoes, and what were purported to be roasted red and yellow peppers and grilled courgettes. However the courgettes were either not roasted at all (perhaps boiled) or roasted for a remarkable length of time, as they were utterly soggy in texture, the peppers little better. A tarragon mustard vinaigrette was decent but did not save the dish (11/20). My duck breast (£17) was fine, cooked pink with a pleasant jus of figs and red wine, with some superfluous poached quince, on a bed of duck confit mixed in with potato. This was just flaccid – the duck breast itself would have been better on its own (13/20). A side order of chips (£3.50) were decently seasoned but also soggy (just how hard is it for a commercial kitchen to produce decent chips, for goodness sake). A mixed leaf side salad was not what I had ordered and was not terribly good to boot.
Up to this point the dishes had appeared at a remarkable pace, and the waiter, almost as an afterthought, asked if we wanted to see a dessert menu. From the look on his face I am guessing that scarcely a diet-obsessed diner here has ever made it to that stage, and he almost had to dust it off. The two thin girls next to us had given a whole stream of instructions to the waiter about the various things they would not eat on this remarkably inoffensive menu, with various "I'll have this but hold the ... (substitute anything hinting of calories; I lost the specifics in the noise) ..." Hence I had expected a dessert menu with the odd foam or "air of something light", or "utterly sugar free xxx", not what hoved into view: a black forest gateau (£5). This featured a perfectly pleasant chocolate mousse on a very thin layer of sponge with kirsch-infused cherries, and very nice it was too (13/20). A chocolate sundae (just how many of these do they get through here?) was another enjoyably old fashioned idea, but spoilt by an excess of cream and rather tasteless chocolate (12/20).
Coffee was actually very good though despite asking for it after dessert they did try and serve it to us before dessert had even arrived (no rush chaps, but please note the queue of emaciated blonde diners at the door…). Service was friendly but remarkably inept. First the wrong bottle of wine appeared, then a different side salad to the one I had ordered turned up, then just one of us was asked if we wanted coffee before the waiter turned on his heel and had to be dragged back; you get the general idea. No one cares, since the place has a terrific location on Sloane Square and is most definitely fashionable. Anyhow, after a time here diners probably go deaf anyway, so imagine what it is like for the poor waiters. Prices were not absurd, but rather high for the level of the food. It is clearly a commercial success of the first order, whatever its flaws. It would be easy to knock this place, but although uneven, the food is mostly quite decent.