26 May 2008

Honey Trap

‘When you go in search of honey, you must expect to be stung by bees…’
[Joseph Joubert, Writer]
I DO NOT intend to amplify the ‘buzz’ surrounding Mayfair’s Wild Honey. I think that the fact this dim, sullen priest hole has been garnished with a Michelin star is peculiar, rather than weird and wonderful. The annex to sister Arbutus, a ten-minute stroll away, it occupies Marco Pierre White’s former Drones Club. Incidentally, a drone is a lazy bee which lives off the labour of others. Vicarious connotations aside, whilst Wild Honey is a reference to the site's heritage, Pyrenean honey also makes a welcome appearance with cheese and is the focus of the signature dessert.
The Arbutus touches are plainly in evidence: dining at the inherited onyx bar is possible; the bound table mats imported from New York too, even though they darken an already oppressive room and would look more at home on the beach. Mounted Rubenesque Edwardian postcard nudes also hang in the gents.
In both venues (and I fear more are in the tripe-line) relatively economic ingredients are spruced, preened, collaged and eventually destroyed. The result: menus which seemingly every professional critic lauds as unequivocally effervescent value. But how? -Dip into one of their famous carafes before spluttering the word ‘urologist' (really a large glass of wine poured into a price), unscrew some water and sip a coffee (without any chocolates), and dinner will easily creep north of £60 per person, even if you are an omnivore. I don’t mind spending money on good review reconnaissance. Even though I earn sufficiently little to be affected by Alistair Darling’s latest tax pleasantries, eating and drinking and thinking about drinking and eating are my raison d'être.
But here (and there), covers are shoehorned so close that the next generation is probably - accidentally – conceived within the walls of this claustrophobic panelled corridor. These are decorated with floppy, distracted art, which somehow echoes the disparate parts arrogantly positioned on the plates.
Six of us sat secluded in an oak cell near the spiral to the musty loos. My sister chose good old English Snails, presumably happy in their damp, homegrown lives. These were extruded from their shells and strewn a la Farinette on a pancake. Serving these bravely naked was a mischievous irony considering that Wild Honey’s signature font echoes that of the Slug and Lettuce pub chain. My Braised Pig's Head with Potato Purée and Caramelised Onions smelt of testosterone: musky sweat, ordurous and feral.
Only after we had embarked on our plated profanities did bread arrive, preceeded by no amuse bouche and shovelled onto our plates from a great height, like everything else. Dover Sole Terrine with wild Mushrooms and Golden Sultanas simply wasn’t a terrine in construction, tepid and persistently sweet to boot. A bottle of indigenous Portugese, Post Scriptum '06 (made by Bruno Prats in association with the Symington port family) was too young, but promising, suggesting scorched red earth and passably rustic.
Waiters wear dull light institution blue shirts and determinedly fail to listen. My mother is on a medically imposed diet: frustrating for her, but simple for chef. She asked for English Asparagus to be prepared plain, without Parmesan. It arrived underneath a grated snow drift. She requested her Elwy Valley Spring Lamb to be cooked well-done. What landed was haemorrhaging. Our Brittany waiter was also of the ‘grabby’ school of service. My father was reading the back label of the Post Scriptum until waiter snatched it from him to kill the contents, (en)forcing us to order more. Moreover, not content with my brother in law’s next wine choice, he set up an apparently random blind taste test. Even professionals quake at this. However his either-or was £20 apart.
Polemical, unsupervised service.
A bottle of easy going, but clearly manufactured millennium Lealtanza Rioja Reserva was simple, rested, with subdued cherries, but inappropriate for the big, but often fractious flavours encountered.
My main course of Icelandic Cod, Spring Onions, Razor Clams and Smoked Pancetta smelt of arthritic breakfast kipper. Purée shaped into leaves was a nice touch; soft, cut clam, replaced in the long shell resembled scallop. My sister pointed out that the cod was simultaneously dry and moist, and the pancetta very salty, however. My father liked his Bouillabaisse, served from a copper pan, like at Arbutus. However the dish I would have rushed to: Limousin Veal, was not on this menu (although it re-appeared when we were re-issued menus to choose pud).
My mum’s small, cooked tomatoes, which she made do with whilst the lamb was given a blast, were delicious.
Ignoring our waiters unprovoked, but provocatively intrusive second taste test, in which he brought a chilled red out when I requested a white, two carafes of stickies followed. Castelnau, the second wine of Suduiraut was appropriately (lightly) honeyed for a Sauternes with cleansing acidity. From Sauternes' neigbour, Château Fayau’s Cadillac was leaner, with no obvious signs of botrytis.
Three of us chose from a cheese installation, displayed under a skylight in a Perspex cube. The ten strong selection from La Fromagerie, offered in pristine condition, were all French, except for Montgomery Cheddar. They were portioned amidst bittersweet grapes (the waiter either couldn’t, or couldn’t be bothered to tell me what they were) and lashings of wild honey. The texture of thick, melting, churned ice cream, with a delicately floral aroma and pungent but limbering, lingering palate, this was Grand Cru quality – the bees knees, if you like.
When my mother appealingly joked to the waiter that we would steal the jar, he rushed it away.
I should have phoned the ambulance before attempting my Chocolate Soup with Milk Ice Cream. You could have weatherproofed a roof with it. It was patronisingly sprinkled with white and pink candy. I have had much better at Café des Amis. Fortunately, everyone swooned over the Wild Honey Ice Cream sprinkled with Crushed Honeycomb. Whilst astonishingly light, it delivered: full, buttery luxurious, almost haunting. Indeed, I would happily have skipped the culinary steps to this moment. My mother’s fruit salad was clean and fresh.
Why I would never go back...
The tomatoes were delicious, the honey would inspire bee-keeping and the cheese if spread on a trap, enticing enough for a kamikaze mouse. However the latter two required no intervention from the kitchen, and the former would have probably tasted better uncooked. What does this tell you about a restaurant droning out messy, jarring concoctions? It strikes me that the employed contents of this dark vault of a room and those who cook beneath it are so deafened by the tinitial wall of unhelpful critical praise that they forget to look after the honey pot public who make it all possible.
Wild Honey: I wish you the wilderness; recess into recession! You have achieved the unthinkable - L'Autre Pied suddenly seems an appealing alternative...
Wild Honey - 12 St George Street. W1S 2FB. T. 020 7758 9160
Nearest Tube: Oxford Circus

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