Fine dining at the Royal Exchange

Timothy Barber
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Royal Exchange, Bank, EC3V 3LR 020 7618 2483


Cost per person without wine: £42

DESPITE the grandness of its architecture, its lofty dimensions, the prestige of its retail outlets and, above all, its illustrious place at the heart of the City’s history and culture, as a place to socialise or entertain the Royal Exchange is strangely uninspiring. Perhaps there’s just no getting away from the fact that, essentially, it’s now a shopping centre, and shops – no matter how high-end – are an atmosphere killer. The Grand Café out on the courtyard floor has all the cosy ambience of an airport bar surrounded by duty free shops.

Up in Sauterelle, the restaurant on the mezzanine level, you’re at least in the Club Class lounge, sitting in tranquil comfort while looking out on those making the most of their lot down below. It’s intimate enough, even cosy in its soft blue chaired, purple carpeted way, but still feels a little dull and anonymous.

That isn’t stopping chef Robin Gill doing boldly sophisticated things with an elegant take on rustic European cooking.

Take, for instance, a plump slice of sea bream fillet served with a leaf of greenest savoy cabbage, a smudge of butternut squash puree and pile of bulgur wheat mixed with nuts and raisins. This was the perfect seasonal dish: the wholesomeness of the nutty bulgur wheat – lightened by gentle hints of dill – and the splendid orange and sweetness of the butternut squash all seemed as nostalgically autumnal as kicking one’s feet through a pile of crisp brown leaves. Meanwhile a scallop served with a sliver of suckling pig and toasted cauliflower puree was equally accomplished, the moist pork almost as light and smooth as the puree.

It’s all done with considerable finesse. Gill falls over himself to go the extra visual mile – funny-shaped plates with separate elements of the dish dotted around in complicated patterns – while coming up with unconventional combinations.

It’s a cooking style that’s perhaps a little insistent in its demand that you be impressed – I couldn’t see the point of the little tubular curls of toast stuffed with a herby prawn concoction which came with a sous vide-cooked lemon sole. Apparently they were an “inversion” of prawn toast, but their dull taste added little. Actually I’m not very sure of the point of cooking such a delicate fish as sole sous vide (vacuum-sealed and warmed in a water bath) – the white filet was mushy and a bit tepid, but tasted as sole should, with a dash of silky beurre noisette.

My dining partner went for a plate of different parts of Devonshire lamb – little sections of rump, sweetbread and belly, served in a bowl with tomatoes, olives, a lorry-load of borlotti beans and a parsley-infused salsa verde that was so glowingly verde it seemed to hum with vitality. Every supple, pink piece of lamb was sweet, juicy and alive with gutsy flavour.

After that, the choices for dessert were a little disappointing: just four options (plus cheese), and unlike the other courses, seemingly stuck in the previous season. It’s all about fruit – poached white peach, chilled watermelon soup, panna cotta with strawberries, banana and walnut cake. My companion went for the panna cotta, which wobbled like a jelly and was too sturdy by half. My cheese selection was fine.

The service was friendly and assured, and you can’t argue with the good value of a three-course set menu for £23.