The Carlton’s eatery turned 50 last year, celebrating with a refurb and new chef. But has it worked?
Jumeirah Carlton Tower, SW1X 9PY
Cost per person without wine: £65
Elderly restaurants can be a bit like grandparents – demanding of respect without doing very much to deserve it. They have a tendency to rest on their laurels: the hard work has been done, now it’s time to milk the cash cow (or, in some cases, cut slices off it and feed them to the guests). You visit them from time to time, but only because you feel you probably should.
There is one fundamental problem with that strategy – as restaurants get older, so do the clientele. And old people, inevitably, reach a point when they stop going to restaurants. So, eventually, you get in a trendy designer and a new chef and you hope it’ll be enough to pull in a load of bright young things. Such is the case with the Jumeirah Carlton, whose The Rib Room, at over 50-years-old, comfortably outdates the hotel’s current owners. Refitting such an elder statesman is a dangerous business. What you don’t want is to dress grandma in a tracksuit (I tried once, she looked ridiculous).
It walks the tight-rope pretty well, opting for traditional green leather and starched white tablecloths – hardly blazing a trend-trail but certainly the safe option. The one thing it can’t get away from, though, is that it’s still in a hotel – and, with a few exceptions, there is something very depressing about hotel restaurants. You can always tell apart the guests from the casual diners. Those staying in the hotel look jaded. Couples speak less, or not at all, presumably unused to spending so much time together (when they recall the meal in a couple of months, of course, it will be as a blissful dining experience, complete with free-flowing conversation). Being surrounded by silent, brooding, jet lagged couples is hardly the best aperitif (hotels, though, do come with some advantages – my guest’s toothache was assuaged by a handy Nurofen delivery that you probably wouldn’t get at Tom Aikens).
The pre-dinner “gin & bitters experience” is mandatory, I’m told, with the white-jacketed barkeep serving up various gin-based concoctions. I arrived early enough to squeeze in an ill advised Royal Chase too – a cocktail with such a kick I was tipsy by the time the starters arrived.
The menu is modern British, courtesy of new head chef Ian Rudge, who has jumped over from Nigel Haworth’s Michelin-starred Northcote. Disappointment at the size of the scallops didn’t last long. You don’t expect them to be anything less than delicious. They were. The pumpkin soup was pleasant in the way pumpkin soup is – not the most inspiring of choices but you can’t account for the tastes of your guest.
Anything calling itself The Rib Room, though, stands or falls on the quality of its ribs: you can’t hide from the name over the door. There are only actually two rib options on the menu, which makes it more of a rib annexe than a rib room. I went for the roast rib of Casterbridge beef with Yorkshire pudding, which was as intimidating as it should be – a gigantic pink hunk of dead cow. It was cooked well enough – rare as all hell – but that couldn’t disguise the fact that it wasn’t a great cut of meat. It was OK, but to devour a £42 chunk of animal, it has to be more than that. When I conceded defeat around half way through, my plate looked like the sweepings from a slasher-horror film set; the kind of thing that would give calves nightmares.
The apple souffle was interesting – and I’m using the British definition of “interesting”, which translates as “not very nice”. It tasted a bit like someone had taken a blowtorch to the top of a bowl of whisked baby food. The ginger parkin was better but it was still a sobering end to the meal (probably just as well after the cocktails).
There is nothing really wrong with The Rib Room, there just aren’t very many reasons to gush about it. The wine was well matched, the service exemplary but the prices more than a little on the steep side. The silent couples glowering from the booths will probably be able to rewrite it as an excellent meal by the time they fly home. It wasn’t enough to inspire them to pass much comment at the time, though.