Monday, September 19, 2011

Arbutus, Friday 16th September

The basis/inspiration for my lists are Time Out’s excellent 1000 Things to do books in…, in this case London. It has since mutated to include recommendations and things I see as I go about my daily life, plus other sources. I’ve recently joined the Twittersphere and that is brilliant for discovery.

My boyfriend and I find Time Out’s recommendations to be a bit hit and miss to be honest. But that just gives us the perfect excuse to try things out for ourselves. So, onto my first entry proper – Arbutus. In particular, the set menu they do as a pre-theatre treat, which yes, was recommended in 1000 Things to do in London. At just under £20 for three courses it sounds too good to be true. In some ways it is; they do restrict you to only two choices per course, which had me a little worried. Their menu changes daily and seems to contain a lot of offal so you can’t tell before you book if you’ll like what’s on offer. As a child I mainly ate plain chicken and plain omelettes when I went out to eat, and though my tastes have increased almost exponentially since then, I’m still a little fussy. But, one of my good friends had already been to Arbutus and spoke highly of it, and for that price it seemed worth the risk. We also happened to have the perfect excuse to spoil ourselves – the 4 year anniversary of having met my boyfriend occurred last week.

We had reservations for 6:15. Another downside of the set menu could be that you can only book between 5 and 7, and they give you a 1.5 hour time limit. I don’t have any problems eating early though, and had made sure to finish my lunch around noon and resist any snacks in order to work up my appetite.  I was a little early when I got to the restaurant to meet my boyfriend so went over to Soho Square to read, where I discovered Stephen doing precisely the same thing. We greeted each other and then he surprised me with a little gift. I’ve chosen to mention this not only to boast of what a thoughtful boyfriend I have, but because the chocolates came from Paul A Young. I don’t think I have this chocolate shop on my list, but that is remiss of me. They have a reputation for confectionary delights and I’ve wanted to try one of their salt caramels for quite a while. Stephen had bought me a selection of slightly out of the ordinary chocolates, three of which were the famed salt caramels. Of course, I didn’t want to spoil my dinner so I put them away for later.

We were still a trifle early but I had passed by the restaurant once already and it didn’t seem busy so we thought they wouldn’t mind seating us early and we were right. Arbutus is a quite a clean, calm sort of restaurant. Lots of beiges and creams, plus a few naughty vintage porn photos thrown in to liven things up. The wait staff were friendly and even a bit laddish, as Stephen remarked. We were offered bread and some very creamy butter straight away, and this was regularly proffered before our mains arrived. I love bread, but at the same time didn’t want to stuff myself on it so I had just the two pieces, as did Stephen. The second piece came in handy to mop up the last traces of our first course. As I said before, there are only two choices on offer per course and between us we had almost every dish. For starters the choices were soft poached egg on lentils with spinach or curly kale and potato soup. For mains it was a choice between rabbit in mustard sauce or silver mullet with carrot and cumin. For dessert the options were meringue with custard and praline or cheese. It was easy for me to pick my menu – the only soup I really like is tomato so poached egg was the winner there. I’m not too fussed about fish – I don’t like to gamble on ones I haven’t tried yet – so I went for the rabbit, and then as much as I love cheese, I will still pick something sweet over it if I have the choice. So I did. Stephen went for the other options, except for the starter where he joined me in having an egg. We do love our poached eggs – they’re practically an essential for breakfast at the weekends for us.

Another plus of Arbutus is that their wines are very reasonably priced and they even do them all by the carafe! They price them at more or less a third of a bottle (and a third of a bottle is what you get) so you aren’t paying more for less, as it were. This is ideal if you’re going there because you want to dine without breaking the bank balance. I chose the Picpoul de Pinet, simply because I’d never had it before. It was fragrant, flavoursome and fruity. I’m glad I tried it. The carafe works out to one generous glass of wine each (though we didn’t pour it out all at once) and it was a bit of a chore to make that one glass last the whole meal, both because I do drink quickly, and because we liked the wine.

We didn’t have to wait long for our starters to come out. I enjoyed mine more than I thought I would as lentils wouldn’t normally be something I seek out. The egg was warm but the whole dish was quite refreshing. There were only a few sprigs of spinach, uncooked, and I wouldn’t have minded more of that, but overall it was very tasty. The dressing, which I think was a bit of a mustard vinaigrette was definitely worth saving some bread for.

Not too long after, our mains arrived. I definitely chose the best meal and had no food envy whatsoever. Especially when Stephen told me his fish was, indeed, very fishy – verging on as strong as mackerel, which I’ve established in the past as too strong for me. If I’m not eating salmon or tuna, I like my fish to taste as bland as possible. My rabbit was fantastic. It was slow cooked – all juicy and tender, and came in a mustard sauce which was not too mustardy, just quite creamy with a bit of a bite. Some more spinach, baby carrots and boiled potatoes bulked up the rest of the meal. Stephen said his fish was very nice, sitting on a restaurant-style flourish of a smear of carrot and cumin sauce and with some pieces of beetroot to accompany it. It was a romantic meal so naturally I shared some of my dish with my paramour and he concurred that it was good. ‘Rabbit is definitely much better than chicken’ he declared. I hadn't until then been aware they were in competition.

Mackerel at Arbutus

Rabbit at Arbutus

The dessert was probably the weakest course, which is an unusual thing for me to say. I had been looking forward to some gooey, chewy meringue but what I actually had was an isle flottante, with some candied nuts crushed and crumbled on top, and a few pitted in the meringue. It was very sweet and reminded me of eating a big marshmallow. What with the candy covered nuts, I felt like it was Easter. It was pleasant, but the meringue was so light and fluffy, it was almost like eating nothing. I prefer my desserts to be less polite, more sinful, gooey, sticky messes. Stephen had opted for the cheese, he claimed for altruistic reasons because he knows I love it so much and so I could have some of his, but in truth he now loves it almost as much as me. The cheese of the day was a brie de meaux. It came with what we think was an apricot chutney, and the slice looked quite miserable on the plate. They offer you more bread to go with it, which in some ways is a shame as we’d already had quite a bit of bread and some crackers would have been a preferred substitution. The cheese was potent to say the least and more than made up for its meagre appearance by its flavour.  It was creamy adn squidgy and tangy. We finished the remaining drops of our wine, and settled the bill. A brilliant £52 including service.

As far as set menus go, this is definitely worth doing. £25 each for that kind of meal is a bargain and feels like just the right kind of meal to have if you really were going to the theatre after – filling but still quite light. Not something that will sit heavily on you while you are entertained for the rest of the night. Or if you plan on carrying on drinking, like we did. We also really liked the atmosphere. I'm used to dining at around 8, the peak dinner time in restaurants where the restaurant is noisy and the waiters are busy. Eating at this time, at least in this restaurant, was really pleasant - it had a very relaxed atmosphere and Stephen and I didn't feel in the least bit self conscious about opting for the cheapy menu. It helped that several other diners were also eating from that menu - including one lone diner. I wondered if he might be a fellow blogger...

Set menu - £18.95 (optional service charge of 12.5% added)

250 ml carafe of Picpoul de Pinet – approx £8.50

Oh – and for those wondering about the chocolates… scrumptious! I’ve eaten almost half the box (no, there weren’t that many) and have savoured every one. It included some unusual flavours like wasabi, and a goat’s cheese one that was meant to taste a bit like cheesecake but didn’t. The highlights are definitely the salt caramel ones though. I will miss them when I eat the final one.

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