A couple of years ago, the good folk of Bistroteque set up a short-term "guerrilla" restaurant in a deserted car park on Brick Lane. It was called Reindeer, and managed to combine the edgy and the kitch, pulling off a Christmas theme that never quite became naff and serving some decent enough grub, all things considered. There was a chap in a green velvet top hat showing you in from the car park, Christmas themed cocktails and a goodly amount of dressing up. There was a cabaret. It was a lot of fun.
So I was really looking forward to the new incarnation: Flash, an installation restaurant at The Royal Academy. I was hoping for knowing nods to the art world, perhaps, or at the very least a reprise of the Christmas theme from last time. On the evidence of the opening night of its 80-day stint on Saturday, though, what they've come up with is not so much a one-off themed restaurant as a new business model: open a perfectly nice but perfectly ordinary restaurant that can safely avoid the embarrassment of having to close two months after opening because closing down was always the plan anyway. Of course this was exactly what happened with Reindeer (they even closed the business loop by selling off the crockery and fittings on the last day), but the difference that time round was the effort that had gone into the sparkly Christmas theme. As Howard wrote at the time the restaurant was an event in its own right. Flash, on the other hand, is just a restaurant, albeit one that's nominally part of a broader contemporary art exhibition. And despite the fact that the food seems better, the overall experience is poorer as a result.
No mysterious elvish bouncers this time round, then. Upon arriving at the back door of the gallery you're pointed via an oh-so-conventional cloakroom directly to a door at the end of the hallway... through which you walk straight into the main dining room. No bar area serving the themed cocktails we'd been anticipating (Artinis, anyone?). I'm not sure what would have happened if we'd been early.
The room itself is a large boxed off area, literally boxed off, as it happens, by stacks of packing cases decorated with some foodie cartoons that were quite good fun. A single big festive bauble could probably have used a few companions, and served to emphasise how lacking in bells and whistles the rest of the place is. Apart from some fancy Wedgewood plates and load of teapots along one wall of packing cases it could have been any old function space dolled up for a wedding breakfast. But without the flowers.
Which is all a bit of a pity, because the food was really rather good. A ham hock and smoked eel terrine worked pretty well with a watercress sauce and nicely exemplified the voguish robust seasonal cooking that was writ large throughout the menu. A truffled celeriac tart actually proved to be a disk of puff pastry slathered with an intensely musky mash - and was none the worse for that. A Jerusalem artichoke soup came with rabbit leg thrown in. A joy.
Mains were mainly good too. Confit duck leg was pleasant and correct, although I could have lived with more punch in the accompanying mustard sauce. And roast guinea fowl provoked an effusively positive reaction from Howard, who particularly enjoyed the salsify that came with it. The letdown was the veggie option, which was far too similar to the truffly starter, albeit with soft polenta instead of celeriac and no pastry – and therefore no texture – at all. Given that the location seems likely to encourage more than the occasional vegetarian, having two out of three veggie dishes so alike feels a bit lazy.
Puddings and cheese were good, although the latter revealed just how short of rehearsal some of the staff were on opening night. Our waitress had the cheeses written down on a tiny page at the back of her pad but she either couldn't read her own writing or had never heard of Comté or Colston Basset. Possibly both. We were happy to help.
There were other first night niggles too, not the least of which was a reduced menu due to a problem in the kitchen that ruled out grilled meats. This cut some of the more interesting items from the published menu but to be fair we had been warned in advance and it did prompt a 50% "Practice makes perfect" discount from the bill. At the resulting £40-odd a head with service this felt like good value. If we'd been paying full whack I think I would have felt a bit hard done by not to mention even more "so what" about the place than I already do.
Flash, GSK Contemporary, The Royal Academy, 6 Burlington Gardens W1S 3EX 020 8880 6111