I’d been planning a self-congratulatory column when I reached 100 restaurant reviews for City A.M. but I took my eye off the ball and now we're up to number 105. When the centenary klaxon should have been sounding, I was too busy drooling over the tinned black pudding at Six Portland Road. So I’ll spare you the onanistic pawing over past glories and get straight on with the business of reviewing Galvin at The Athenaeum.
Keen readers of the last 104 reviews (hi, mum!) will know I have a hard time with hotel restaurants. I reckon my average star rating hovers somewhere around the 3.5 mark, but for anywhere in a hotel it dips closer to two.
There’s something oppressive and impersonal and impractical about their sprawling dining rooms filled with knackered international tourists who look thoroughly sick of each other. My worst ever dining experience was at Trader Vic’s – somewhere I described as “like your parents getting divorced” and “the physical embodiment of disappointment” – which is in the basement of the Hilton Park Lane. STK at the ME hotel, with its table-dancing and resident DJ, is exactly the opposite of somewhere I’d want to eat my dinner. Of the others that immediately spring to mind, I didn’t particularly care for Ametza, The Rib Room or Rivea, and there must be at least a dozen that have left no impression whatsoever on my gustatory cortex. I didn’t even like Berner’s Tavern, which a rival newspaper speculated might be the “defining restaurant of the decade” (spoiler: it’s not).
Galvin at Windows, located on the 28th floor of the Hilton Park Lane, is an exception to the rule, acting as a kind of epicurean yin to Trader Vic’s unpalatable yang. It was the second venture by Chris and Jeff Galvin, brothers from Essex who trained under Anthony Worrall Thompson in the days before he went all Winona Ryder and started shop-lifting from Tesco. Their first restaurant was Baker Street’s Galvin Bistrot de Luxe, a more down to earth affair, both literally and metaphorically, serving up simple but exceptionally well-prepared Gallic classics.
I expected Athenaeum to be closer in tone to Windows, and I was wrong. The food is resolutely unflashy: well sourced and well put together, nothing complicated to get your head around. That’s fine by me. Of all the restaurant empires in London – and with all respect to Mr Hix, whose words you can read on this very website – the Galvins are, for my money, the most reliable. They know what they do and they do it well. Their ambitions are relatively prosaic but their execution tends to be faultless.
Take the Athenaeum’s apple tart with cider brandy cream: it’s been on the Galvins’ menu since Bistrot de Luxe opened in 2005 and it’s still one of the finest desserts in London – caramelised but not sticky, big chunks of apple with a hint of cinnamon giving it an air of a strudel, but a pumped-up Russian shot-putter version. It’s worth coming for this alone.
In fact, aside from the bread, which I assume had been lying around all day, having taken on the taste and texture of polystyrene, every dish recommended itself. There was a deliciously rich Cornish fish soup with rouille (olive oil, breadcrumbs, garlic, saffron and chilli), which, to further boost its homely credentials, comes with a little bowl of grated cheese. And there’s a puck of Portland crab – perhaps the finest crab you can buy – topped with shaved egg white and yolk, which tastes of childhood holidays to the seaside.
Pork belly with a black pudding, apple and hazelnut salad is entirely without flimflam, but the pork is so well cooked you can discern its every layer, from the glazed skin to the liquefied subcutaneous fat to the ghostly-white flesh and the further, deeper seams of fat and muscle. The tuna burger, meanwhile, is perfectly seared, a deep mauve at its heart, with a light, white cabbage slaw. If you can get through the gigantic brioche bun, you’ve a bigger appetite than I.
So the food is pretty great, but what about it being in a hotel? Well, I still can’t quite get over that. Even in a space that could conceivably be independent, it still can’t shake the unmistakable air of hotelishness.
To my left a couple gazed at each other with sad, jet-lagged eyes; they’d agreed to try one last time, to book a fancy hotel and really give it a go. But they both knew it hadn’t worked. Neither said it aloud but the word loomed large in both their minds: divorce. Across the room a lone businessman drank red wine a little too quickly, cursing his HR director for sending him here. The deal was already done, they could have sent Dave for a job like this. He was thinking of his newborn son, of his chubby fists, hoping he wouldn’t miss his first smile. He wished he hadn’t ordered the escort the night before; when will he learn?
It does take the edge off a bit.