IT’S hardly as if the City’s been short of “sign of the times” changes, but another came late last year when Prism, the Harvey Nichols outpost that was one of the Square Mile’s grandest and most lauded fine-dining restaurants, was reborn as a brasserie and bar. That meant a back-to-basics menu emphasising cosy ingredients including veg from new head chef Daniel Sherlock’s own allotment, an extended bar area with some extra sofas, and a grand piano in the centre of the room.
It’s all meant to create a more relaxed, less exclusive atmosphere, where you’re as welcome for a drink and a bite as for a sit-down meal. However since the room remains a magnificently ostentatious old banking hall (on Leadenhall, it’s the former home of the Bank of New York), complete with pillars that go up for ever and vast, white stone walls – it’s rather like sitting inside a wedding cake – relaxed is a relative thing. In fact it’s a slightly tricky thing – we went in the evening, and the chatter from the crowd at the bar echoed round the room like a coach-load of tourists in a cathedral. It didn’t make for an awfully intimate dining experience, and even salted away behind a huge pillar, we still had to lean in close to chat – I was thankful that, the night I visited at least, there wasn’t anyone sat at the old Joanna to add dribbly background jazz to the aural melee.
While the menu may have taken an earthier, more affordable direction, it’s hardly entered the realm of budget grub. In fact, there’s some real imagination on display. As well as starters, there’s a range of tapas-style “little picks” – daintily-constructed canapés such as parma ham with celeriac remoulade, mini-chorizo with aioli or prawns in lemon and chilli, which may seem a little beside the point but taste scrummy. The snacky theme continues with a “something potted” section, offering potted mushrooms, shrimps or – more excitingly – goose, all for under a tenner.
If you take the traditional starter and mains route, as brasserie menus go, this one is clearly from a chef who learnt his trade the fine-dining way (Sherlock has been at Prism for three years, working his way up). It’s pretty alluring, full of simple but carefully-conceived dishes. I started with a large, perfectly poached duck egg, the silky-yolk of which spilled out over a rich celeriac remoulade and crispy parma ham, with a watercress sauce that was a beautifully deep shade of bottle green. My dad joined me for dinner, and his smoked haddock chowder was everything it should be: smooth, light, buttery and full of smoky flavour.
I continued with duck for the main course: fulsome, juicy pink chunks of Gressingham breast and slow-cooked leg with a rich, indulgent gravy, plus creamed curly kale and braised artichokes. There was lots of it, presented on a rather avant-garde plate (oval and sculptural, with a couple of holes) that harked back to the dainty presentation and haute cuisine finesse of the restaurant’s previous life. Frankly, it looks better covered in duck and cabbage. Barber Senior chose a roast loin of venison that was moist and sweet, with a juniper and redcurrant jus, parsnip crisps and pureed spuds. The meat all comes from esteemed butcher Ginger Pig, which means the grill section, with offerings including 300g steaks, lamb and pork chops and swordfish, should be a reliably good bet.
The quality held up with the puddings: a white chocolate mousse adorned with honeycomb and nuts, and an apple fool with ice cream, hit home admirably. It also held up in the service – the staff were charming, helpful and respectful. Were it not for the bar chatter and somewhat awkward atmosphere of the voluminous room, I’d say the City has gained more than it’s lost with Prism’s change of direction. The set menu, at £24.50 for two courses and £29.50 for three, is appealing and affordable, which makes it a particularly good choice for a business lunch when the bar area, one assumes, would be less busy.