- Set-Lunch & Pre/Post-Theater Menu: 3 courses for £16.95 (Lunch, Mon-Sun) or £18.95 (Pre/Post-Theater, Mon-Sat)
- À la carte Menu: Starters £7-11, Mains £13-19, Desserts £6.95
- For the full set of photos, please visit my Flickr account
Lunch with the Detective, Part Deux
It had been a while since I first met up with Craig of The London Food Detective at Great Queen Street for a very good lunch, and we both decided it had been too long. We eventually decided on a date and settled on Arbutus in Soho as our second target, namely because it is known for having a bargain of a set-lunch menu.
I have walked by Arbutus countless times during my years of Soho meanderings, and was glad that I would finally be looking from the inside out. Chef Anthony Demetre was formerly of Putney Bridge Restaurant, where he earned his first Michelin star. Since opening Arbutus in May of 2006 with his business partner Will Smith (who doesn’t star in OTT American action movies), Demetre has built up a reputation for serving relatively simple yet well-executed ‘British gatropub meets French bistrot’ fare in a front-of-house ambience that is often described as informal and relaxed. Many critics and bloggers have also sung the praises of the 1 Michelin star establishment on the basis that the food represents very good value for money compared to many other restaurants carrying the same distinction.
I was thus very excited to try the food and to catch up with my lunch buddy, Craig. I hadn’t noticed from outside that the left side of the building is mostly taken up by a long bar (at which you can dine comfortably) and that the back of the room wraps around to the right side, which houses the formal dining room, forming a long u-shape. The restaurant makes good use of the space, without things being too cramped.
(As a side note, the layout is remarkably similar to that of Trishna, an Indian restaurant just off Marylebone High Street I visited recently which I enjoyed and hope to write about in the near future).
Clear vision, clean cooking
Craig had already arrived, and was waiting at a table in the middle of the main dining room. We perused the menus for a while and chatted about the big news in our lives – for him, a move outside of London, and for me, the impending arrival of ‘Baby LF’. 😉
Some relatively soft brown bread was served, with a nice block of butter. Both were good and the bread certainly seemed to be homemade, though I forgot to ask. 6/10.
We both opted to go for the set-lunch menu, as you can’t really argue against £16.95 for 3 courses at a Michelin starred restaurant, unless there is a specific dish you must have off the à la carte. It was a compact set menu – two starters, two mains and either a dessert or cheese – but the choices were generally appealing and, after chatting with our waiter, it seemed like we might be able to substitute something here or there for little or no additional cost (please note that we didn’t actually try this, so please ask before assuming you can!).
Craig ordered the Crisp Pork Cheek & Celeriac Remoulade and said: “It was attractively presented with the pork cheek sitting on a colourful bed of leaves, with the celeriac remoulade on the side. The pork had a lovely crisp topping that contrasted with the warm, fatty, gelatinous cheek underneath. The pork melted in the mouth and the accompanying remoulade offered a mustardy, slightly bitter contrast to the richness of the fat. Together with the salad, this cleansed the palate and meant that the pork didn’t leave a greasy taste in the mouth, which I find can happen with pork cheek if it isn’t well cooked or served with a contrasting flavour or texture.
“I really enjoyed it and thought it showed off the ability of the kitchen to handle cheaper cuts of meat proficiently and it left me looking forward to my main course of lamb breast.”
I was quite impressed when my soup was brought out: it was a good portion size and it looked very hearty and appetizing. The soup possessed a lovely soft texture, and the flavor of the fine olive oil that had been used in the broth came through subtly. It also surprisingly had a pleasant, gentle heat which sat in the background of my mouth as I ate it. The dollop of yogurt worked nicely, both subduing the slight spiciness and also serving a textural and temperature purpose that added a slight creaminess and also a touch of coolness to the dish. It was a very memorable soup and I really enjoyed every spoonful. 8/10.
We were both feeling like manly men and ordered the same meaty main course (the other option was a chestnut mushroom risotto, which neither of us found tremendously inspiring from the description). The lamb breast rested upon a bed of soft, orange winter root vegetables. The vegetables had been mashed to a pulp and were quite sweet. I posited that the mash was composed of swede, sweet potato and carrot (Craig suggested there may have been parsnip too). Beneath the veggie mash laid a somewhat sweet brown sauce, which had notes of carmelized brown sugar. The lamb breast itself was well-cooked and the fat – of which there was a lot – dissolved beautifully and added a nice richness to the dish. It was a very satisfying main course, which I enjoyed, but not quite as much as the soup that preceded it. 6/10.
Of his cheese platter, Craig commented: “Unusually for me, I turned down the dessert and opted for cheese. Unlike at Great Queen Street, it was my turn for dessert envy, as LF’s floating island was very good – I nearly insisted on another spoonful before I tucked into my cheese!
“My morbier came served with a spicy fruit chutney and a thick slice of the brown bread we were served on arrival. To be honest, I would’ve probably preferred a cracker to give a bit of crunch, but never mind. The morbier was a little bit deceiving, as it had a strong aroma and I thought the blue streak through the middle of it would make it quite strong, but in fact it was quite mild and creamy and was slightly overpowered by the sweet chutney. All okay, but I definitely should have gone for the floating island….”
I had no hesitation in selecting the floating island for dessert. I have only ever had this dessert in France (where it is called île flottante), and I always enjoy it, so I was eager to try a version on this side of the Channel. As you can see from the above photo, the dish was presented simply and beautifully. It was also extremely delicious. The vanilla custard (which the French call crème anglaise) was perfect, and they hadn’t skimped on the velvety waters that surrounded the towering island of meringue. The island itself was also perfect, being soft but just firm enough to keep its texture throughout the process of being devoured. The candied pink pralines that crowned the white cylindrical pillow were also buried beneath and hidden throughout the depths of the island. This was the icing on the cake, so to speak, as it added a little crunchiness to each bite, which played perfectly off the squidgyness of the meringue and the creaminess of the custard.
It was a very simple dessert – indeed, you normally get this in bistrot-type restaurants in France – but it was the best one I’ve had, and I still salivate when I look at the pictures of it. I would give it a 10/10 as it was the best example I’ve ever had of the dessert, and the pink pralines gave it that little extra edge of sophistication that made it truly special.
Oh, and the portion size was very generous, just as the previous plates, so I wasn’t left wanting more (well, okay, not that much more). 😉
If you haven’t noticed, I thought the dessert was so pretty that I am currently using it as the banner for this website.
After what was a relatively big weekday lunch by my standards, I needed a caffeine jolt to propel me back to my office and through the rest of the afternoon. The single espresso was passable, but was served a bit cold, so I wasn’t too impressed with that.
Based on my first visit, I would have to agree with what I understand to be the general consensus about Arbutus. It provides you with very good food at very fair prices within a central London context. There is nothing out of the ordinary in terms of the techniques or ingredients on offer, but what there is seems to be done very well. I can’t think of a better 3-course lunch that I’ve had in London for under £20 (of course, keep in mind that this price excludes wine, coffee/tea and service). In fact, it kind of reminds me of the lunch I first had with Craig at Great Queen Street, except this meal was cheaper. Our lunch had included very good and mostly seasonal ingredients that were used to their fullest effect through precise cooking and careful seasoning.
The atmosphere was fairly relaxed, but the service was good throughout and everyone generally seemed to be having a good time, the staff included, which is always a good sign. I also loved the fact that you can have so many wines by the carafe, and think more places in London should do this. Arbutus is definitely a place I’d like to return to, and it is a great place for people looking to eat well but without spending too much. Like I said, don’t expect to find anything out of the ordinary or mind-blowing, but I can’t imagine any of the dishes not being enjoyable here.
Craig concluded that, “Overall, it was another highly enjoyable lunch with LF and we made a good choice of restaurant. The food in Arbutus was of a high quality and was well-cooked by a kitchen using seasonal ingredients. When combined with the unpretentious and friendly service you can see why it has a Michelin star. For the price, it was an absolute bargain and I’d definitely go back. It’s not serving anything revolutionary, but like Great Queen Street it’s providing good, honest food at very fair prices for central London. I’m looking forward to our next lunch and aiming to go up 2:1 in the choice of dessert!”
Wine: a relatively small but very comprehensive and well-chosen wine list, with some top producers and a few more eclectic selections. The best thing is that they have about 60 wines available by the carafe, something that sister restaurant Wild Honey also does.
For more about my rating scale, click here.
*Note: I have dined at Arbutus once, and it was for their set-menu lunch.*