No longer a Pizza Express outlet, the new Kettner's in London's Soho came in for a bashing from the critics when it opened last November. How has it fared since then? Tom Vaughan finds out.
A pig in lipstick is still a pig, and a Pizza Express in Kettner's is still a Pizza Express. Or at least it was. Then Gondola Group, which owns the site, changed the pizza to brasserie food and the interior to a slicker spec, and the critics all rounded on it, arguing that the pig was no tastier than before and the lipstick was far too glossy.
In fact, it got a real drubbing in some quarters. Guardian critic Matthew Norman gave it a half mark out of 10, while Zoe Williams of The Telegraph ostensibly pined for the old Kettner's.
To start, let's get one thing straight: this is far from the most accomplished cooking in the capital. But it's worthy enough, and let's not forget that the three floors of Kettner's can - and did during the Christmas run-up - turn over £250,000 a week, fuelled by a menu that ticks boxes even if it doesn't hit any gastronomical highs.
Head chef Rufus Wickham has solid grounding in this brief, having launched Sam's Brasserie and done time with Peyton and Byrne. He joined three months ago, with the brief of "sorting out the mess" following the bad reviews.
STANDARD BRASSERIE FARE
The food is of standard brasserie ilk, seasonally true and with the only difference from a gastropub offering being an added expense of about £3 per dish.
There's a salty crab bisque for £7 that could have done with a touch more sweetness, perfectly cooked English asparagus with a poached duck egg and hollandaise sauce (£8), and a terrine with duck liver, rabbit liver, lardo, foie gras and an encased, pink pigeon breast (£9).
The mains are divided into salads, seafood and fish, and meat. Dishes don't stray too far into uncharted water, with salads like niçoise with rare tuna (£10/£16), classic Caesar (£6/£9) and fresh crab and endive with crispy bacon (£10/£16).
Crispy sea bass comes with fennel salad (£16), sirloin steak with fries and béarnaise sauce (£22) and Cornish black face lamb - best medium rare rather than the chef's recommendation of medium - with artichokes, orange and mint (£17).
Among the desserts there is the same sort of brasserie vibe: strawberries and Jersey cream (£6) and an exemplary pavlova with Alphonso mango and passion fruit (£6).
For the afternoon tea parties and the grazing mums, the kitchen also turns out a formidable selection of cakes, tarts and pastries, ranging from smoked haddock and Gruyère (£7/£12) to strawberry and vanilla tart (£6).
As mentioned, this isn't food that will set London alight. Rather, it's honest brasserie food, comfortably executed, that serves as a backdrop to what Kettner's does well (and never did in its Pizza Express days). That is, it provides a classy Champagne and cocktail venue in the heart of Soho.
Champagnes range from £8.75 for 125ml of Gallimard Cuvée Réserve Brut to £13.75 for a glass of Louis Roederer Brut Premier. There's an extensive and exclusively European wine list, starting at £16.50 for a bottle of house, then broken down into style, and cocktails are around £10.
Personally, for someone who hadn't visited the old Kettner's, the new look interior - a sort of duck egg grey with aged mirrors and little in the way of soft furnishings - works, and there have certainly been more offensive reworkings of classic looks in the past year or so (Foxtrot Oscar anyone?).
At capacity the restaurant can do 1,000 covers a service, turned out by the 10 kitchen staff, and at the moment it turns out about 450 on busy evenings. It's these vast scales that dictate the menu and, despite what the critics say, Kettner's is attracting the Soho crowd, just as it has done for the past 140 years.
29 Romilly Street, London W1D 5HP
Tel: 020 7734 6112www.kettners.com
WHAT'S ON THE MENU
- Soup of the day, £5
- Bayonne ham, celeriac remoulade, £8
- Deep fried lambs' sweetbreads, sauce gibriche, £8
- Buffalo mozzarella, grilled courgettes, marjoram and lemon salad, £8
- Fishcakes, pease pudding, shrimp butter, £13
- Roast label anglais chicken, bread dumplings, £15
- Chocolate, pear and port upside-down cake, crème fraîche, £7
- Home-made ice-creams and sorbets, £6
- Crème brûlée, £6