I wanted to like “The Square”, I really did. Holder of no less than two Michelin stars and the darling of British food bloggers, I had some pretty high expectations. Head chef Philip Howard certainly has an impressive CV, doing stints in some of the best kitchens in London – Chez Bruce, Bibendum and Marco Pierre White’s Harvey’s. As you’d expect of a 2-star kitchen in London, the food is classically French.
Thinking about it, we got off to a pretty bad start. I’m a big fan of a pre-dinner aperitif; it’s great for whetting the appetite. As you might know (I didn’t), Mayfair is not exactly over-burdened with watering holes, so after tramping the streets in vain for 15 minutes, we arrived early at the restaurant. After we received a warm welcome, I spotted a bar and asked if we could have a drink before looking at menus. No problem, they said. We were seated in the waiting area with a couple of glasses of champagne and were immediately brought menus. Not really what I had in mind. This wouldn’t have been so bad, but the staff started to look distinctly uncomfortable. In short, three staff members stood about five feet away from our table, staring at us. After a few minutes of feeling distinctly uncomfortable, we asked for our drinks to be brought to the table. It seems the well-stocked bar is only for show. Pity.
A waiter brought the customary amuse bouche (Sweet Corn Bavarois with Duck Jelly Consommé) to the table along with bread and a vast basket of crackers and other titbits: black rice crackers, pork scratchings, anchovy bread sticks, squid rings in a light batter. My first quibble – I asked the waiter if this selection included any shellfish, as I’m allergic. He politely replied in the negative and went about his business. Trusting my well-sharpened smellers, I confirmed with another waiter who had a better grasp of English. I learned that our basket included an item made from prawns. The second waiter apologised and replaced the basket, minus the offending prawn appetiser. I can understand that this oversight was caused by a simple language barrier, but it was inexcusable for me to be served shellfish in a 2-star restaurant, after clearly informing the waiter of my allergy. Not good enough.
The breads were excellent, as were most of the crackers/bread sticks. The only disappointment were the squid rings, which by the time we had got to them, had turned soggy and a little greasy. Not a great choice for a basket intended for leisurely grazing while reading a menu.
Aubergine Caviar with a Courgette Flower Stuffed with a Mousseline of Chicken & Goat’s Cheese – After a somewhat strange start, I was looking forward to the first course. The waiter had explained how when slow-roasted, the aubergine takes on a texture and appearance similar to caviar. Well, I couldn’t see this at all. The dish tasted overwhelmingly of the goat’s cheese, masking all of the other components. This sloppy looking dish, devoid of any interesting textures, held no interest for me whatsoever. To be perfectly honest, I was glad when the waiter took my unfinished dish away. Thankfully, it’s not often I’ve been served a dish that scores negatively on every level – flavour, texture and appearance. I certainly didn’t expect this from a 2-star kitchen. By now, alarm bells were starting to ring.
Lasagne of Dorset Crab with a Cappuccino of Shellfish and Champagne Foam – Foam? Cappuccino? At first glance, this dish appears to have all the right elements, the title coming straight out of “Michelin Star Dishes 101″. Personally, I thought the dish appeared rather dull and unappetising. The Wife proclaimed it to be tasty, if unspectacular. That is until, she had picked three pieces of shell out of the crab meat. We made three attempts to complain discretely to our waiter, the same waiter that brought me the prawn appetiser, but he couldn’t understand what we were saying. We gave up, called over the head waiter/waitress and the remnants of the dish were removed from our table. I should note that we were still charged for this dish (£75 for 3 courses), but our two glasses of champagne were scratched from the bill. While I appreciated the gesture, I still don’t feel it was enough. Here’s the crucial point: this obvious lack of attention to detail is simply unacceptable at this level. Someone in this kitchen needs to get their eye back on the ball…
Breast of Goosnargh Duck with Tarte Fine of Peach and Red Onion Confit - This meal was proving to be an unmitigated disaster until finally, we were back on track. My duck dish was excellent – perfectly cooked meat with a rich and sticky sauce giving a good balance of sweet and tart flavours. My only criticism of this dish is the lack of starch on the plate. It’s purely a matter of taste but always think dishes without a starch element feel unbalanced. Chef Howard obviously feels different, and that’s fine…
Slow Cooked Halibut with Beetroot Pureé, a Warm Potato Salad, Grilled Spring Onions and a Smoked Eel Cream - again, this dish was excellent. The fish was perfectly cooked, translucent in the middle. Special mention must go to the richly flavoured eel cream.
Peach Melba Soufflé - like all good soufflés, this example was as light as a feather. The waiter used a spoon to puncture the soufflé and poured in a zingy raspberry sauce along with a quenelle of peach-flavoured ice-cream. Absolutely delectable, without a doubt one of the finest desserts I’ve ever eaten.
Brillat-Savarin And Red Currant Cheesecake with blackcurrant sorbet and white currant purée - after the spectacular soufflé, it was had to be impressed with this admittedly excellent cheesecake. The Brillat Savarin cheese gave the dessert a sharp bite, complemented perfectly by the sauce. The dish was also accompanied by a fantastic blackcurrant sorbet.
One more unpleasant point. After we had finished our starters, we noticed how empty the restaurant was (Sunday evening in August). The dining room is quite large and had only a handful of tables occupied. I felt that this made for a somewhat more intrusive service than we would have normally experienced; almost as if the staff were making an extra effort to look busy. We also thought the service was rather hurried also. We also had to endure bleeping mobile phones and mumbled phone conversations, courtesy of two denim-clad (but extremely well-heeled) gentlemen for most of our meal. Despite the restaurant being at about 5% occupancy, the waiting staff placed these guys directly opposite our table! We asked at the end of the meal what was the restaurant’s policy on mobile phone use, nodding at the nearby gentlemen. The waitress apologised and informed us that the gentlemen in question were asked to refrain from using their phones, but hadn’t done so. I’d helpfully suggest that The Square should be a little stricter about this. This only serves to alienate other customers.
Look, I’ve read the reviews. I’ve read the blog posts. I’ve eaten one of the best meals of my life at The Square’s sister restaurant, The Ledbury. This place is supposed to be top-notch. Unfortunately, we seem to have caught The Square on a very bad night. I presume the head chef had taken the night off. Well, I was incredibly disappointed. The food was pretty hit-and-miss. The service lack-lustre. The ambience non-existent. Was this worth £75 per head, excluding wine and service charge? Pfft…