Restaurant review

The LaLee, London: “A menu designed for the well-heeled tourist” – restaurant review | Food

The LaLee, The Cadogan, 75 Sloane Street, London SW1X 9SG (020 8089 7070). Starters £14-£20, mains £18-£49, desserts £6-£9.50, wines from £29

Restaurants aren’t just dining halls with adjoining kitchens. They are complex machines with invisible moving parts. If you get the design wrong, everything falls apart, like you’re on a train taking breaks in Warrington Bank Quay. The design of the LaLee at the Cadogan Hotel in Chelsea is all wrong. It doesn’t quite work. It looks like a restaurant set up by some exciting designers who were thrilled with their fabric swatches, carpet choices, and overall brand image, but whose attention drifted during meetings when those responsible for the hotel catering explained what type of joint they actually had in mind.

Let’s start with branding. The LaLee was the name of the custom railroad car used by Lillie Langtry, the actor and society figure, on her tour of America in the 19th century. The connection being that the Langtry townhouse at 21 Pont Street is now part of the hotel. This isn’t the first time the Cadogan has tried to cash in on its name. A few owners opened a car crash at a place called Langtry’s, where the menu included a deconstructed shrimp cocktail – shellfish jelly, battered shrimp, Marie Rose ice cream made with mayonnaise and tomato ketchup – the thoughts of which haunt me sometimes in the darkest hours before dawn.

“Mayonnaise is really concocted from A to Z”: Caesar salad. Photography: Sophia Evans/The Observer

No food here is as bad as this, but it’s hard to make the connection. Langtry is portrayed in menu text as a woman whose sole motto was sex appeal; like the proverbial good time everyone had. The entries are presented as “a little flirtation before the main event”. The desserts are “outrageously sweet to make you swoon”. That might work if you were here on a date, but not so much if, say, you booked lunch with Derek from accounts so you could check year-end numbers. Main courses are described as “divine main courses from the most beautiful cities in Europe”. That works out to a schnitzel, steak and chips, rack of lamb, aubergine parmigiana for two and so on, all at Chelsea prices, that price being around £30 a pop. It is sold as very glamorous. In truth, it’s a menu designed for well-heeled tourists on the fourth day of their trip to London when they can’t be sorry to leave the hotel to eat.

So why did I bother to go? For a reason: they also promise culinary theater at the table. I’m a complete sucker for that. I love it when a skilled server shows up next to my table with a box of stuff and some killer moves to cook my dinner in front of me. It’s very old school and it’s quite seductive. Here, they promise to do the trick with a Caesar salad and steak tartare. This is where it all gets a little messy. A cart might be a good idea for this. Instead, they have white wooden tables with spindly legs, which can be very expensive, but look more like Allen key jobs from the Ikea New England Cottage range. Moving them is a two-person job. While we wait to be served, many tables pass from one room to another sumptuously furnished. Oh look, they’re coming back again.

“Properly spicy”: steak tartare.
“Properly spicy”: steak tartare. Photography: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Finally, it’s our turn. And it’s on the table. It’s just not our table. It was probably the designer who insisted on arranging the room so that the Caesar’s was placed 5 feet from us on our left across the aisle next to a booth. The steak tartare table is far across the unoccupied table to our right. This makes it very difficult to watch all the theater you came for. There is simply no room to achieve what they want to do. (Also, the rug on the hardwood floor isn’t big enough for all the tables in this room, so one leg of my chair is off when we arrive, creating an instant wobble. We take matters into our own hands and rearrange the furniture .)

But as always, I have to accentuate the positive. The waiters do a very good job, even if you have to twist your neck to watch them do it. The mayonnaise for the Caesar is truly made from scratch and the cos salad is big on the salted anchovies, as I requested. The steak tartare is properly spicy, always as requested. A bit of toast wouldn’t have gone wrong with the latter given the £20 price tag, but hey. Still, both dishes really are as good as any you’ll find in London right now.

'Comes with fennel': sea bass.
‘Comes with fennel’: sea bass. Photography: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Everything after that is as mundane as you might imagine from the menu descriptions: serviceable lamb chops that could have spent more time under the grill; a skinny £26 demi-filet of bass with fennel; zucchini fries too thick, so the pastry overlay is not cooked through enough. The dessert is just a shame. A madeleine served warm out of the oven is a delight. These are overcooked and dry. The savarin, or yeast sponge cake at the heart of the rum baba, should be a gorgeous, tanned, browned thing. It’s just a too-soaked puck of dense sponge.

Still, it’s a nice place to dine and chat quietly. Or it would be if it weren’t for the stern man in the next room who can’t stop yelling. Because the LaLee has a large open kitchen. These can be excellent in chatty, noisy brasseries where the noise of the kitchen fades into the general hubbub. They can also work in these high gastronomic temples where the monastic brigade has developed a sign language involving the positioning of tweezers on the straps of their aprons and imperceptible hand gestures.

'Puck too soaked in dense sponge': rum baba.
“A dense, too-soaked slice of sponge”: rum baba. Photography: Sophia Evans/The Observer

The LaLee is neither. It’s a slightly chintzy place of calm, civilized conversation, constantly interrupted by the head chef barking orders at his crew, as if the kitchen were behind a door. For the guests who have chosen the two tables in front of the kitchen, I imagine that’s fine. For the rest of us, it’s just plain weird. I’ve long felt sympathy for cooks who just want to do their job, but were exposed to an open kitchen as part of the experience. Here, due to the jarring way the place was designed, this issue is simply underlined. It rather sums up the LaLee. It tries to be an exciting destination restaurant, when really it should just be a utilitarian dining option in a posh London boutique hotel. Consequently, it is neither.

News

Ukrainians coming to the UK to escape war will need more than just a place to live. As the government’s belated program to allow people to seek refuge here takes shape, the Shrine Foundation has been set up to enable individuals, community organizations and businesses to offer support, including jobs. Krish Kandiah, one of the leaders of the new organization, identified the hospitality industry, which suffers from both staff shortages and the potential for flexibility, as a potential source. He asks that all companies that think they can offer employment register their support on the site. To visit sanctuaryfoundation.org.uk.

Tim Allen, former chef at Launceston Place in London and the Wild Rabbit in Kingham in the Cotswolds, is finally going it alone. He opened the aptly named Sõlõ in Aughton, West Lancashire. It can only seat 38 people, with two chefs in the kitchen who prepare set menus for £35 at lunchtime and £65 in the evening. To see restaurantsolo.co.uk.

Boutique Hotel No 131 in Cheltenham, owned by Jade and Julian Dunkerton of popular fashion brand Superdry, is to open a new upscale (read expensive) Japanese restaurant called Yoku. On the menu is omakase sushi for four to six people at £120, miso scallops with shiitake mushrooms and a selection of hand rolls and sashimi. AT no131.com/yoku.

Email Jay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1