Missing the mark in museum land

AUBREY, the restaurant of The Kensington Hotel, is named after Aubrey de Vere, who I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you was a middle-ranking medieval baron and chum of William the Conqueror. He netted himself the estate of Kensington after the Norman Conquest, according to the Domesday book. Back then, the estate was a largely-deserted Middlesex backwater, and this bit – a couple of minutes walk from South Ken tube – can still seem just that once all the museums have emptied and the tourists waddled off. So a smartly refurbished hotel with a swish new restaurant to tempt folk to stick around could be no bad thing.

Occupying a Georgian block on Queen’s Gate, the hotel reopened last year following a £20m revamp that’s given it a luxuriously international flavour. Corridors are lined in gleaming marble, opulent armchairs and pretty fireplaces lurk around corners, and four-poster beds are the order of the day (or night) upstairs.

You reach the restaurant via a mahogany-panelled cocktail bar, with some rather splendid leather-lined bar stools. It’s very smart in a cosy, old-fashioned kind of way, with a tempting cocktail menu. But a cold wind of blandness blows through the restaurant itself – or that might have been the draught from the bay window we were sat beside. Either way, the place lacks character, despite the green leather banquettes, Chinese vases and polished wooden floor. The “smooth jazz” background music could actually have sent us back out the door at a canter, but for the polite welcome and professionalism of the staff.

The menu they brought looked promising enough – it’s full of solid Brit fare like ham hock terrine, leek and potato soup, a game dish here and a pan-roasted fish dish there. It wouldn’t win awards for imagination or innovation, but I’d never value those qualities over good, reliable cooking, and it’s not bad value either. A single meat-free main of tagliatelle with courgettes, spinach and mushrooms might disappoint vegetarians, but you probably don’t expect many of them in Kensington.

A warm salad of black pudding with wild mushrooms, crispy bacon, a poached egg and masses of rocket was neither more nor less than the sum of its parts. The black pud was a little dry, but meshed well with the runny yolk of the egg. Things took a wrong turn with the other starter, a roasted breast of partridge that might have been fine for Aubrey de Vere, but not in this day and age. Piled in a pyramid on a circle of gooey bread sauce, the breast meat was overcooked, dried out and salty. There was a leg too, wrapped in rubbery skin, beneath which some slithers of meat resolutely resisted any attempt to remove them from the bone.

A main course of pork was better, with a moist cube of slow-cooked belly and a slew of loin medallions sitting cheerily upon some bubble and squeak, finished with a spot of sage-infused gravy. Roast monkfish was a little overcooked but satisfyingly buttery nonetheless, surrounded by sautéed new potatoes and some creamed leeks.

For pudding, a chocolate brownie was overpowered by a large ball of strong mint and chocolate chip ice cream. A rhubarb and apple crumble, brought in an attractive ceramic
dish, bubbled with juicy stewed fruit but needed sugar.

Point of interest: in the Domesday book, Aubrey de Vere’s estates were valued at £300, which would now get you a couple of nights in one of the hotel’s basic rooms. A vast fortune has been spent on turning it into a sumptuous haven for jet-setters, but the restaurant needs a bit more refining before it matches the upmarket aspirations of the hotel.