Opulence, ostrich and eggs benedict as West End landmark goes weird

Timothy Barber
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<strong>The Criterion<br />224 Piccadilly <br />W1J 9HP <br />Tel: 020 7930 0488 </strong><br />Cost per person without wine: &pound;43<br /><br />OUTSIDE the Criterion&rsquo;s grand entrance it&rsquo;s like Piccadilly Circus &ndash; a grim, heaving mass of tourists and traffic that swarms in every direction. Okay, it is Piccadilly Circus, and as you arrive it&rsquo;s hard not to feel a bit sorry for this bastion of London dining, as illustrious as it is historic, sitting in the shadow of Eros and almost subsumed in the downmarket heart of the West End scrum. The question is, can its new owner elevate it beyond these surroundings?<br /><br />It&rsquo;s interior rather than exterior that&rsquo;s important here anyway. As London dining rooms go, the Criterion is a place of almost unmatched grandeur, and it&rsquo;s with some relief that you pass through those imposing double doors into a vast area of old-world opulence. Its great hall &ndash; opened in 1873 &ndash; is a place of columns, arches and huge mirrors, all overlooked by a dazzling ceiling patterned in gold-leaf tiles. The style is neo-Byzantine, a collision of Empire might and the Orient as imagined by Victorians who probably never set foot outside the Home Counties. <br /><br /><strong>VEXING PROBLEM</strong><br />It&rsquo;s quite bizarre and rather fun, but the chap tinkling a jazz-lite version of Coldplay&rsquo;s Yellow from a grand piano in the bar area doesn&rsquo;t serve up the most complimentary atmospherics. Nor does the lighting, which is much too bright &ndash; there are florid Belle Epoque fittings and huge lamps everywhere, as though someone installed a lighting showroom in a cathedral nave. I suppose it means you can admire the ceiling, but it&rsquo;s not good for intimacy. For a room of such drama and history, the place somehow feels worringly blank.<br /><br />The problem of how to resolve the majesty of the architecture, the awkwardly large dining room and the tacky but landmark location has vexed various owners over the years, not least Marco Pierre White who most recently installed one of his Frankie&rsquo;s pizza joints here. Thankfully that&rsquo;s gone, and the place has now been taken over by a Georgian property magnate named Vasily Sopromadze. They like glittery things, these oligarchs.<br /><br />There&rsquo;s a lot of tables here, and the restaurant will have to work very hard to fill them all &ndash; a dining room this size feels seriously empty when it&rsquo;s half full. The menu is all over the shop though. As well as starters and mains, there are separate sections for soups, crustacea, pasta (consisting of one ravioli dish), an out-of-place sushi/sashimi option, and &ndash; most bizarrely &ndash; an eggs section with two variations on eggs benedict. I love a poached egg as much as the next man &ndash; possibly more than the next man &ndash; but for dinner? Non, merci.<br /><br />Skirting around these peculiarities, head chef Matthew Moxon makes his&nbsp; South African roots evident in many of the dishes. The general thrust, I suppose,&nbsp; is an eccentric take on modern European, but eccentric can tip over into weird.<br /><br />We find ourselves less than amused by an amuse bouche of blended watermelon, feta cheese and balsamic that tastes going down exactly as you&rsquo;d expect it to coming back up, but thereafter things get a lot better. Plump scallops with girolle mushrooms and pancetta lardons make for a luscious lip-smacker of a dish, and &ldquo;soya and ginger-marinated, hand-cubed British beef fillet, cucumber, salty caramel and quail eggs&rdquo; &ndash; and breathe &ndash;&nbsp;comes together rather nicely (against the odds, one feels). Put it down to the quality of the meat, which is excellent.<br /><br /><strong>DENSELY FLAVOURSOME</strong><br />On to the mains, and an opportunity to eat well-cooked mutton shouldn&rsquo;t be passed up. It comes three ways &ndash; a smoky leg slice, a rounded fillet and a mini kebab, all moist and densely flavoursome. Meanwhile a rich, peppery ostrich fillet comes with an African concoction named popotje &ndash; a bit like haggis, with added cumin. As I said, it&rsquo;s eccentric &ndash; as are the puddings, with a circle of chocolate tart plated up to resemble a Miro painting (I think), and South Africa&rsquo;s answer to sticky toffee pudding, Malva pudding, arriving with a mini creme brulee and amarula ice cream. Both taste delightful, but you can&rsquo;t dispell a lingering sense of randomness.<br /><br />It&rsquo;s all trying a little hard to impress &ndash; it&rsquo;s too fussy for a place that would benefit from simple statements. The thing is, you want this to work, it deserves to &ndash; and if it can become crowded and buzzy, with an atmosphere more befitting the grand banquets the place once hosted, it may do. For the time being, it&rsquo;s an interesting attempt &ndash;&nbsp; but I&rsquo;m not sure the conundrum of the Criterion has been solved just yet.<br /><br /><strong>In a nutshell:</strong> It&rsquo;s a worthy stab at something different in this famous venue, though the menu needs focus. Ditch the jazz pianist and the sushi.