The 135-year-old Criterion on London's Piccadilly has relaunched under new ownership, with revamped interiors and a new head chef. Kerstin Kühn visits one of the capital's most historic restaurants.
The Criterion is arguably one of London's most iconic restaurants - and certainly one of its most beautiful. First opened in 1874 as the Long Bar or Marble Hall, it is a Grade II-listed building that forms part of the 120,000sq ft Criterion Theatre block on Piccadilly, which is owned by the Crown Estate. Its spectacular interiors include marbled floors and mirrored walls, set below a magnificent neo-Byzantine golden mosaic ceiling.
Marco Pierre White acquired the restaurant from Forte in 2001, when it was managed by My Kinda Town, successfully returning it to its former glory, but his love for the Criterion seemed to have waned over the years.
In February this year, the restaurant was given a new lease of life after it was taken over by Irakli Sopromadze, of the Vox Restaurant company, a 21-year-old entrepreneur from the former USSR state of Georgia. He acquired the Criterion as the first of a number of planned investments in the capital, "gently restoring" its interiors and bringing in new head chef Matthew Foxon.
South African Foxon joined from acclaimed south London gastropub the Rosendale where he had been head chef for 18 months. He considers the opportunity to bring back the Criterion "like phoenix from the ashes" as a great honour.
"My menu is both geared towards the tourists who flock through our doors and towards London-based customers - it offers something for everyone," he says.
A set menu, priced at £18 for two courses and £23 for three, is available at lunchtime as well as pre- and post-theatre, and offers a choice of around five starters, mains and desserts. The à la carte meanwhile is divided into sections: soups, crustaceans, starters, main courses, grills, egg dishes and desserts, as well as a sushi and sashimi section to cater for the restaurant's Russian clientele.
Foxon bakes the bread on-site twice a day, produces fresh pasta and makes his own butter, yoghurt, ricotta cheese and ice-cream. His seafood is sourced from the Cornish village of Looe, where his supplier buys predominantly line-caught fish in a daily auction, while meat is focused on rare breeds such as Galloway, Blue Grey and Simmental, which he hangs to age to five weeks.
Foxon's menu bears a range of different influences: Russian touches include a first course of Imperial Baeri caviar at £120 for 50g, while Asian flavours can be seen in a starter of soya marinated yellowfin tuna served with a tofu purée and red pepper crisps (£12.50).
Most notable, however, is Foxon's South African upbringing, which particularly shines through in a signature dish of dukkah-spiced, ostrich tenderloin served with sweet potato purée, sautéd baby spinach and a mini beef bobotie - pronounced ba-boo-tea (£19.50) - a national dish of Cape Malay heritage consisting of spiced minced meat baked with an egg-based topping.
Other starters include a rich Kashmir saffron risotto served with a quenelle of Parmesan ice-cream (£8); and British beef tartar with cucumber, salty caramel and quail eggs (£11).
A main course of Middle White pork features loin, belly, sausage roll and black pudding, which Foxon buys-in to ensure quality, and comes with a splodge of pea purée (£18); while wild Cornish sea bass is served with mussels and a langoustine in confit tomatoes (£19.50).
Puddings include a dark and white chocolate tart that sees the two chocolate varieties balanced on top of each other and is accompanied by praline mousse (£8). A dessert of Malva pudding is served with crème anglaise and Amarula ice-cream (£7).
Together with the culinary experience, restaurant manager Simon Wilson-White leads an army of waiting staff providing genuinely attentive service.
The Criterion is a true stalwart of the London dining scene and is now in the hands of a team who passionately care about its future. It seems that this phoenix has indeed started to rise from its ashes.
The Criterion Restaurant, 224 Piccadilly, London W1J 9HP
Tel: 020 7930 0488
ALSO ON THE MENU
- Pan-fried diver king scallops with girolles mushrooms, pancetta and pea cress (£12)
- Courgette flower, goats' cheese, baby artichoke, beetroot and coriander cress (£9)
- Foie gras tourchon with pan brioche and sultana chutney (£10.50)
- Wild mushroom risotto with black truffle and truffle oil (£16)
- Olive oil poached monkfish with chickpea purée, mussels and clams (£18)
- Five-week hung Galloway grilled fillet of beef (£25)
- Rice pudding with raspberry and sweet basil sorbet (£6)
- Vanilla panna cotta with confit rhubarb and strawberry Champagne (£7)
- A selection of British cheeses with dried grapes and home-made oat cakes (£11)