Covent Garden is crying out for a decent restaurant, even if the hordes of tourists don't realise it, happily paying too much to eat chips with everything in a series of identikit gaffs. Unless you're going to blow out at Rules, The Ivy or Robuchon, the best bet in the area has always been Joe Allen. Nothing wrong with Joe Allen, of course, but its charm lies in its longevity and style rather than its cuisine.
So I was delighted to learn of a new place on Great Queen Street called Great Queen Street. OK, I wasn't delighted by the name, which strikes me as singularly uninspired, but as far as the food was concerned it promised much. When it first opened many people (including your reviewer) described Magdalen as being like an Anchor & Hope where you can book a table; well Great Queen Street goes one better, as it actually IS a bookable Anchor & Hope, one of a number of new ventures from SE1's favourite gastropub (France and Oxford will also soon boast outposts). Unfortunately, while Magdalen more than stands up to the comparison, Great Queen Street doesn't. Not yet, at least.
I've been there for lunch twice in the past week and both times have felt let down by service consistent only in its forgetfulness and just enough niggles with the food to disappoint. On both occasions I found myself having to ask repeatedly for drinks orders, several of which never saw the light of day at all; on both occasions service tailed off dramatically towards the end of the meal, as the staff's attention turned to their own meal; on both occasions at least one dining companion professed to be "annoyed" as a result. The general impression is of the kind of casual attitude you can get away with in a pub, but not in a restaurant that should be out to impress.
The menu reads exactly like that of the Anchor & Hope and is a joyous celebration of seasonal British produce. Yesterday's starters offered up a particularly difficult choice: porchetta, asparagus, bread and tomato soup, beetroot with goat's curd and mint, potted shrimps, cured pollock [sic] with soft boiled egg, chicken liver parfait, terrine, crab on toast and a warm duck heart, radish and foie gras salad. I could have ordered any of them, but obviously went for the last. The choice of mains was curiously limited: just one veggie and a couple of fish dishes, rabbit, lamb or three different treatments of Hereford beef (the kitchen takes delivery of a whole side of beef every week and works its way through it). I don't have Saturday's full menu in front of me but from memory there was a bit more choice on offer that time, including at least one sharing dish.
Of the dozen or so dishes I've sampled none really sticks in the memory, yesterday's salad probably coming closest: the bullets of intense duck heart working well with the smooth, rich foie. Several, on the other hand, I can recall because they weren't quite up to the mark. Potted shrimps were gloopy and luke warm, which didn't do them any favours, a burger, refreshingly served not in a lazy bun but on some dripping toast, unfortunately crossed the line between rare and raw at the centre, a big saddle of rabbit also showed signs of being underdone closest to the bone, "spiced" rump was slow-cooked to perfection but with no evidence of spice, roast lamb was under-seasoned, the delicate cured pollack was overwhelmed by too much onion... Individually, these are mainly minor quibbles but there are simply too many of them, I'm afraid. The Anchor & Hope is not perfect, by any means, but in the inevitable comparison with its new offspring, there is simply no contest.
I really wanted to like this restaurant. Still do, in fact. Its ethos and its pedigree ought to make it the perfect embodiment of the growing trend in modern seasonal British cooking – I love the-side-of-beef-a-week idea. And, yes, it's only just opened (they don't even have a sign yet) so with any luck the wrinkles will be ironed out in time. At the moment, though, they'd do well to remember that it's a restaurant not a pub, that attention to detail is never a bad thing and that you really should make sure your diners are happy with their meal before you start tucking into yours. Bloody good chips, though.
Great Queen Street, 32 Great Queen Street WC2B 5AA. 020 7242 0622