Any restaurant opening in an economic slowdown in the same street as the Ivy has its work cut out. But, as John Greenwood reports, West Street's simple Italian formula may do the trick.
Fourteen years after opening the doors of Kensington Place, Rowley Leigh is looking to make his mark in the West End with West Street, a new restaurant offering a wide-ranging menu of simply cooked Anglo-Italian food.
Situated in a six-storey building in the same quiet street as the Ivy, the West Street Hotel, Restaurant and Bar has recently opened after a £3m makeover, but is a different proposition to its illustrious neighbour.
The West Street operation incorporates a basement bar, ground floor canteen-style restaurant and a 90-seat restaurant on the first floor, as well as private dining rooms and three guest accommodation rooms.
While still holding responsibility for Kensington Place, Leigh is executive chef at West Street, with head chef Lawrence Keogh in day-to-day control of a brigade of 18.
Leigh describes the style of the first-floor restaurant as English with an Italian accent, although the accent is a heavy one. Closed on Sundays and with last orders at midnight, it is presently serving around 900 covers a week, with an average spend of £40 with wine.
The target audience is the sophisticated theatre-goer seeking a change from florid menus. "We've always believed in understatement," says Leigh. "If there is a hint of vanilla in the jus, we want it to be a nice surprise."
Leigh has structured the menu to follow the pattern of the traditional Italian meal, with antipasti followed by soup or pasta, then a selection of meat or fish dishes and desserts. "We are offering more general dishes rather than a menu of house specialities," he says.
A favourite among the 11 antipasti is octopus salad with borlotti beans (£6) and a choice of two soups includes yellow pepper with goats' cheese and tomato (£6.50). Pasta includes fresh tagliatelle with hare sauce (£7/£10.50) or Swiss chard and bacon risotto (£5.50/£9).
At main course, diners can choose from plaice (£12.50), sea bass (£17) or turbot (£19.50) steamed with tomatoes, olive oil and basil. Swordfish (£15), sea bass (£17) and Dover sole (£19.50) are offered grilled with marjoram and lemon, and there is a selection of Italian meat dishes.
Of these, Leigh's favourite is the veal, prosciutto and sage brochettes (£15). "We roll a veal escalope in the ham and sage and grill it on a skewer," says Leigh. "It's very tasty and very unusual."
Vegetables such as spinach, courgettes, pumpkin and potatoes are charged separately, priced £2.75 to £3.
To finish, Leigh offers nine desserts. An unusual but popular dish is the cannoli al limone (£6), consisting of pastry tubes fried on sticks and filled with mascarpone, ricotta, crème fraîche and lemon juice. "To Sicilians, this dessert is comfort food," says Leigh.
Opening a restaurant in the heart of London's theatreland just two weeks after the attacks on New York might seem like unfortunate timing, but Leigh is philosophical. "We've always known how to ride out recessions. We will just have to set about making the place work in the current framework."
West Street Hotel, Restaurant and Bar, 13-15 West Street, London WC2 9NE. Tel: 0207 010 8600
A selection from the menu at West Street
Green lentil salad with eggs, olives, peppers, smoked anchovies, £7
Buffalo mozzarella with figs and Carpegna ham, £11
Grilled squid with chilli and rocket, £8
Grilled mackerel fillets with salsa verde, £9.50
Calves' liver with pumpkin and sage, £15
Parmesan chicken with creamed tomatoes and basil, £13.50
Barolo pears with mascarpone, £6
Hazelnut cake with figs and Marsala, £6.50
Panna cotta with passion fruit, £6.50