Torode offers more sizzle than steak

The Luxe
On hearing the name of John Torode, those in the know are likely to grunt with satisfaction as the image of a large, juicy steak enters their head. Perhaps they’ve even read his book, called Beef. Others will murmer an approving “ah yes” as a great cocktail, smoothie, or debaucherous night out at Torode’s flagship restaurant Smiths of Smithfield wafts into their memory. Or maybe they’ve just seen him on Masterchef.

So the prospect of visiting Torode’s latest restaurant and bar was certainly an exciting one. Unlike Smiths, The Luxe – on Commercial Street at the foot of Spitalfields Market – is more of a designey restaurant, with a more intimate, suave dining room with Italian-looking pale green leather banquettes, silk wallpaper and original parquet flooring. As for its USP, foodwise and ambience-wise, it’s not immediately clear how it’s different from Smithfields, except for the fact that it’s not as good.

I’ll start with the ambience. The bar downstairs was rammed with clusters of wet people (it was raining), necking booze and being loud. It was cold. Worse, it was missing a warming atmosphere – perhaps because it was just a big, windowy room with a few chairs and tables. I cowered, wishing I was elsewhere, before my friend told me he was already upstairs. But upstairs felt a little bit, well, thin, somehow. The atmosphere was thin – not many people. Tables also seemed thin on the ground, arranged along narrow corridors around the room, with a few in the middle near a rather commanding bar.

We sat in a dark passage round the side, which in another place could have been cosy. Though we were well looked after, there was something a bit depressing and dark about our position here, facing not terribly much. Shame, as it’s an attractive space – as the “handblown glass lights”, “cherner chairs” and “exposed brick” touted on the website would indicate.

The food. Had it cost half what it had, it would have been fine. But in a gastronomic age where a three-course meal can be had at the delicious, Michelin-starred Arbutus for £15.50, and at Helene Darroze, including two glasses of wine, water and coffee, for £42, it is a total mystery how The Luxe has ended up with its current offering.

It’s an expensive menu serving standard hearty modern British food, with a few strange additions, such as chicken wontons with bean shoots and spiced broth. Starters come in at £8-£12, which is setting the bar high. Yet my companion’s pea soup was bizarrely tasteless. Not only did it lack seasoning, it tasted as though flavour has been chemically deducted from it. The dry-looking samosas on the side did little to assuage the tastelessness of the soup.

Meanwhile, I was doing battle with a salad of prosciutto, mozzarella and winter leaves. If I wanted to eat undressed bitter leaves with ham and cheese I would do it at home, on the cheap. In a restaurant, I expect more than three elements to a salad, and certainly some discernable dressing. They brought me out a little bowl of lemon and oil when I enquired about the lack, but I had almost got it down by then.

I then thought I’d better test Torode on what is meant to be his strong suit, opting for the 14 oz porterhouse steak. At £28.50, you expect a piece of meat to be magnificent, melting, bursting with flavour, begging to be finished. Instead, I had another battle on my hands, as I could barely chew through it. But because of the price, I persevered. At least I felt full afterwards. It’s worth pointing out that at what has been called London’s best steak house, Goodman, a 14 oz porterhouse steak (USDA Beef, 150 days grain fed) costs £24.

My companion’s duck, pork belly and sausage dish was strong in flavour, but was doused in something bearing a major similarity to tinned tomato. It was a rustic dish that seemed to misfire in this costly environment – cassoulet, if that’s what it was, doesn’t need a hefty pricetag, and it should be bursting with ingredients instead of furnished with a few beans here and there.

Dessert picked up – a rhubarb crumble was warming, fulsome and delicious, and a cheese plate was generous with creamy English cheese.

But when the bill came to £122, I suddenly felt sick. Wines by the glass were severely limited in choice, and while the single glass of Tinpot Hut sauvignon was good, the glasses of house red and white weren’t particularly joyous, and so we felt a bit hard done by, as if we’d somehow been charged for a phantom bottle of Tattinger or similar (we hadn’t).

Torode has drawn a strange sort of blank with The Luxe. He’s got a promising location and the potential to make a go of an interesting space. Now he just has to go and actually do it.

The Australian chef behind the successful Smiths of Smithsfield misfires with his new restaurant, which features expensive food that’s not nearly as polished as it should be. The meat was an unexpected let-down.