Bryn Williams is the well-known chef patron of Odette’s in Primrose Hill: a charming neighbourhood restaurant which also happens to be one of my go-to restaurants in the capital. I’ve been an on-and-off regular there for the best part of 10 years. This year Bryn expanded his empire with a new vegetable-focused restaurant in Somerset House, occupying the restaurant space formerly held by Tom Aikens – a wing in the south part of the building comprising interlinking dining rooms and a bar. It’s a grand setting and a bold move, whilst the primacy of vegetables thing is very on trend (Simon Rogan and Yotam Ottolenghi are doing exactly the same too).
I wish I could say I love it as much as Odette’s but I can’t. This isn’t because of the food (which I’ll come on to), or the pricing (which is fair), but more the service and ambience.
I stopped by just before this year’s never-ending heatwave reached the seventh circle of Hell. Hot, sticky and in desperate need of a cold aperitif before lunch, I was really looking forward to cooling down. And what was the first noticeable thing? No air con. None. The dining room was stifling; my clothes were stuck to me; my body was melting with tristesse like a Salvador Dali painting. Granted, the windows were open but no air was coming in. Now I can’t blame the restaurant for the weather – that would be churlish and silly – and of course I totally get that the infrastructure of a building like Somerset House may not allow for air conditioning to be installed. But, I ask, what price fan? Not much is the answer. I know this because I bought two myself just to create some semblance of a cross-breeze in my flat this sweltering summer. In this day and age, with our increasingly hot summers, restaurants must find some way of making guests feel comfortable. (Incidentally, a new air con system and under-chair soundproofing have recently been installed at Noble Rot – a restaurant that can really do no wrong and responds to the needs of customers’ comfort).
The food itself is (mostly) well-executed and thought out
Some water arrived but I was really in need of some ice, which I asked for but it never came. (Perhaps it had melted en route). Meanwhile, the timid breeze from the window was blocked by a foursome of smartly-dressed young fogeys all twatting on about their Porsches, offshore accounts and 24 hour concierge services (they probably voted for Brexit too – the odious kind of double-breasted rah-rahs who stand to benefit from it whilst the rest of the country burns). Add to all of this, my chair was too high for the table (the opposite problem of Neptune). Why don’t restaurateurs check the tables and chairs before they order them? I wasn’t enjoying the atmosphere one bit. I came close to cancelling but I decided to sweat it out and at least give the food a whirl.
And this is where there is at least some redemption. The food itself is (mostly) well-executed and thought out.
The cured salmon with beetroot was soft and unctuous and needed little-to-no movement of a knife. Hallelujah! A crisp glass of 2016 Furmint from Slovenia accompanied this well (though this was about the only thing that afternoon that had been successfully chilled).
Then came a pleasing seasonal dish: a celebration of courgette and tomato. The co-star of this dish was slow-cooked lamb (a meat Bryn knows well I’m sure) and the dish as a whole had a real Provençale feel: the meat tender and the jus well-reduced without being overly sticky, it just sang summer in the south of France. I washed this down with a glass of Tempranillo which was far, far too warm. Yes, most red wines should be kept at room temperature, but not when the room temperature is the same as an aircraft hangar in Kuwait.
the Schrodinger’s service was both too fast and too slow at the same time
I struggled with desserts, mostly as I wanted to get out of there quickly and apply a bag of frozen peas to my face as soon as possible, but I caved in with the Eton Mess with basil: a combo that can never go wrong, and didn’t here, though there was too much meringue vis-a-vis cream. A pedant would say this was more of a pavlova, the dainty dish being too “neat” for it to be a “mess” but I reflected on this a bit and thought, look, it tastes nice and looks pretty so does it really matter? It was a good way to end an uncomfortable meal.
I had a couple of issues with the Schrodinger’s service, being both too fast and too slow at the same time. My server was too keen to take my order then repeated everything back at me slowly, thus impeding the apparent hurry she was in. On completing my first course she asked “have you finished?” – even though it was blatantly obvious from the empty plate. “No,” I could’ve said, “I just like staring at an empty plate.” Forgive me, but the oppressive heat and the young Tories on the next table may have affected my mood.
I love Odette’s and will continue to frequent it. I’m a fan of Bryn’s generally. But his new venture at Somerset House is currently let down by an accumulation of problems in service and ambience. Sort it out, please.
by J A Smith