Hygge. Lagom. Gezellig. These words may sound like a Hogwartsian spell but each of these – Danish, Swedish and Dutch respectively – have distinct meanings that are innately understood in their native tongues. They defy precise translation (let alone pronunciation) yet embracing these untranslatable European concepts seems to be, if you pardon the pun, the zeitgeist.
Now the team behind Gezellig (formerly a supper club residency at Carousel) have tried to channel such an intangible concept of cosiness into a permanent restaurant. Their self-declared “drinking den” is housed within Grade II-listed Holborn Hall. Leather banquettes run around the perimeter of the room, the lighting is low and the walls are adorned with posters of pop music icons – all of which suggest something louche and décontracté but if the idea is to create a chilled out atmosphere then they have fallen at the first hurdle. I’ll come back to ambience shortly (spoiler alert: I didn’t like it) but let’s start with the good points.
Like the restaurant’s name, chef Graham Long’s food is indefinable yet intrinsically European: there are touches of Nordic in there (sans the foraging) with occasional nods to the Mediterranean and good old Blighty. Meanwhile, Wieteke Teppema’s wine list traverses Germany, France, the Iberian peninsular and South Africa. It’s like every foodie holiday rolled into one. Certain inward-looking conservatives may think of this restaurant as a “citizen of nowhere” but, mercifully, this isn’t a restaurant for po-faced politicians – it fully embraces the melting pot of ideas and, above all, it’s fun.
It’s like every foodie holiday rolled into one
We started with suckling pig bitterballen from the bar snack menu. These are essentially a kind of Dutch croquette or meatball, traditionally made with slow-cooked beef. Gezellig’s version is non-regulation but they are utterly gorgeous. We enjoyed them so much we ordered a second round with their house Spritz and a white port and tonic, the latter evoking wonderful memories of Lisbon. Things got off to a very good start.
For the starters, the rabbit terrine with mustard was low-key and fridge-cold but nevertheless made good use of the loin and leg meat. My dining companion fared better with the pot roast of turnips and duck offal. The maître d’ proudly declared this their “Brexit survival” dish – when the soup queues, rations and baying for any kind of animal flesh with pitchforks begins, this restaurant has future-proofed itself.
Brandade raviolo with octopus ragu was a triumph, whilst my herb-crusted lamb with fennel, capers and mint was cooked so tenderly that you barely needed cutlery or even teeth – the meat just dissolved in the mouth and the flavours all worked in concert with each other. Like characters in a well-written play, everything was there for a reason. We washed this down with a bottle of 2015 Enrico Santini – a delicious Bolgheri blend, priced reasonably at £56.
It’s not clear if they’re trying to be a restaurant or an indie party at The Lexington
For dessert, the whimsical ‘Builder’s Tea’ seemed an anomaly: a milky mug of tea and chocolate biscuit doesn’t seem a serious proposition for any menu. Again it showed Gezellig’s sense of humour but at £4 it’s just shy of taking the proverbial. The strawberry and elderflower millefeuille was more impressive and displayed a clear mastery of pastry work.
Whilst the food may be delicious, and the service both affable and attentive, they really need to do something about the atmosphere. The soft rock playlist admittedly has some real gems and it can be fun competing with your co-diners to correctly guess each Blur, REM or Pulp song without resorting to Shazam, but one has to shout over the music in order to do so. It’s not clear if they’re trying to be a restaurant or an indie party at The Lexington. The din is further exacerbated by the hard surfaces of the tables and chairs. Loud music in restaurants may be appealing to some, and perhaps in their pre-launch due diligence they surmised that the progressive denizens of Holborn, used to the commotion of the City and the first Sainsbury’s to go cashier-free, would jump at this (almost literally), but consider this: the restaurant was only at 30% capacity on a Friday night. Maybe, just maybe, it’s the loud music that’s turning people off? At the very least, it doesn’t seem to be entirely congruous with the very meaning of gezellig – though of course we may argue about that too. Turn the music down and this place might just be on to something.
193-197 High Holborn
by J A Smith