Brutalism has gone unloved for so long. But like the ‘ostalgia’ for the lugubrious 41-year German Democratic Republic, this bleak architectural style is gaining new-found appreciation. Originally born out of necessity in post-WW2 austerity, these buildings have a certain JG Ballardian futuristic charm. If you’ve walked round the Barbican estate or the recently spruced-up Brunswick Centre have you ever wondered that these concrete structures might one day fly off in to space? Maybe that’s just me.
Slap-bang in the middle of London is one of the capital’s proudest examples: Centre Point. As conspicuous as a singular block of ice in a Negroni, this monolith lies at the intersection of Soho, Fitzrovia, Bloomsbury and Covent Garden. As you escape the shoppers on Oxford Street you can’t fail to notice this massive tessellation of stickle bricks looming over the gateway to the new Betty Line.
Centre Point closed in 2015 to be repurposed as luxury flats (yours for just under £2 million a-piece). Now, at long last, the main public attraction in Centre Point 2.0 has opened: VIVI. This name, you’ll be glad to know, isn’t short for vivisection but is the Roman numeric number for the year the building was built (1966). Located on the first floor, the restaurant feels like Stanley Kubrick’s vision of the future mixed with elements of Royal Festival Hall. It’s an expansive space with a semi-circular bar, pink and beige chairs, and a mezzanine level reminiscent of the Border Restaurant for Western Tourists in Deutschland 86. Even the polished wood encircling the central dining area seems to have been inspired by the lift shaft in Berlin’s Fernsehturm. The 60s conceptualisation is clear enough.
Like a gastronomic Tardis, VIVI whisks us back to the 1960s
But concepts, like alcohol, are best in moderation. Some restaurants just seem timeless, no matter when they started business – the likes of Andrew Edmunds, The Quality Chop House and Wilton’s feel no need to resort to gimmicks and are the better for it. Whilst the look and feel of Neptune channels the Babylon club in Brian de Palma’s Scarface, crucially their 80s vibe complements the overall offering rather than being its raison d’être. The key thing is to get the fundamentals of cookery and service right and not let a concept paper over the cracks. Unfortunately, on this visit to VIVI, it was found wanting.
In any case, is going back to the 60s a sound concept in the first place? Undoubtedly it was a seminal decade for music: the rock and roll of the 50s had transmogrified into new sub-genres, from Beatlemania to the psychedelic, as the first baby boomers sought refuge from the brinkmanship of the Cold War. But food-wise, this was before the Roux family had their impact in the UK, before the Michelin guide even countenanced inspecting restaurants across the Channel, and Pizza Express was just in its infancy. Back in 1966 England may have been celebrating its World Cup victory but the food scene was in a primordial soup. Like a gastronomic Tardis, VIVI whisks us back to this era, ostensibly with the benefit of everything we’ve learnt in the 4 or 5 decades since (red meat, for example, is served pink rather than cremated).
The cocktail menu is itself a paean to 60s rock music, recalling those halcyon days when the Rolling Stones couldn’t get any satisfaction and Robert Plant’s hair was declared a UNESCO heritage site. Alas, my ‘Weeping Guitar’ aperitif of gin mare, bergamot, lime and cucumber had to be chased after an inexplicable 20 minute delay. It was just sitting at the bar, the melting ice diluting all the flavour. That was enough to make me weep, I can tell you.
Indeed, the service was about as organised as a tossed salad. The staff seemed to have taken a vow of omertà just before service began. The lack of communication caused orders to be forgotten, or alternatively duplicated, and there was a very long wait between the starter and main.
There were joyous moments. The cheese straws had a delightful texture, though a slight mis-timing in the oven burnt the edges and made for a slightly bitter taste.
Following cheese with more cheese, the Keen’s cheddar soufflé could never be as good as Le Gavroche’s Soufflé Suisssese but to be fair it wasn’t trying to mimic it either. Twice-baked (because once is never enough and thrice would be too much), it had the texture of a cheesecake filling and was counterbalanced by zingy, vibrant caponata. In retrospect it turned out to be the highlight of the meal.
Dishes don’t really get more old-school than duck à l’orange. This rendition, comprising leg and breast meat and served with chicory, was a little dry and the advertised orange could’ve been more pronounced. It came with a spoon-coatingly sticky jus, but there wasn’t enough of it. It coated the cutlery and then was gone.
who can cock up a sherry trifle? Turns out, VIVI can
My companion’s Berkshire pork chop seemed equally unloved, with the now ubiquitous hispi cabbage but nowhere near as good as the umami hit provided by Coal Rooms’ version in Peckham.
And then dessert. There’s comfort in retro classics like Black Forest gateau, treacle tart, apple crumble and so on, but only if they’re executed well. My companion was seduced by the promise of kirsch ice cream with the gateau whilst I caved in with a sherry trifle. After all, who can cock up a sherry trifle? Turns out, VIVI can. Within minutes of ordering it, a knife and fork arrived – what this set of implements would be required for wasn’t quite clear. But then the quote unquote trifle arrived. Crowded with strawberries and glacé cherries it looked as ridiculous as one of Del Boy’s cocktails. It was essentially a dry, layered cake crammed in a small glass bowl, with no custard in it and certainly no sherry. Meanwhile, the Black Forest gateau was a lack-lustre, overpriced attempt.
It’s always so disappointing to end a meal on a bum note. Chefs and restaurateurs really must remember that this is the impression they will leave you with when you go home, like the ending of a play or that 3rd encore after a concert.
As I waited for the bill I saw the illuminated words “Deliciously Different” shining onto the puddles of New Oxford Street below and wondered if either of those words are an accurate description for VIVI. And then the bill arrived. Well, these aren’t 1966 prices are they? A bog-standard, very young half bottle of Chianti (read: plonk) comes in at £26. The cheese straws alone are £4. And that weeping cocktail? £12 worth of melted ice cubes.
Like the Biblical rain outside, the overall experience at VIVI left me a little cold. But maybe, like Brutalism, it just needs a little love from its owners and staff, and things will improve.
11 Saint Giles Square
by J A Smith