When a chef patron moves on to new pastures it can be liberating for a restaurant – the new chef can be free to put their stamp on it and improve it, which arguably happened when Marcus kept the restaurant at The Berkeley after his feud with G-Ram. But it can so easily go the other way. Adam Handling, formerly a Masterchef finalist in 2013, and Scottish Chef of the Year in 2015, recently left Caxton Grill to open The Frog in Spitalfields – the first of many new ventures and the beginning of an ambitious new career no doubt – but how has Caxton Grill coped under new stewardship? Not very well is the short answer.
It’s difficult to know where to start really. I could go on about the stale atmosphere and the over-priced, bland food, but it was the service that was truly shocking. Were this an episode of Fawlty Towers, the farcical service would be amusing – but it’s not a laughing matter when you’re paying nearly £100 a head. The comedy of errors began in the bar with its passable pre-dinner cocktails and garish lime green stools that were incongruent with the ambience of the St Ermin’s Hotel. Then we were ushered into the ‘restaurant’ – a strong word as this place feels like the Linton Travel Tavern’s breakfast room in I’m Alan Partridge. We were sat directly under the air con unit which only made the cold experience even colder. The lighting was migraine-inducingly random: the large table next to us was half flood-lit and half plunged in darkness as if they were being interrogated by the Stasi for reading subversive literature.
And as for the triple-cooked chips? They weren’t even once-cooked
Food-wise, the menu has a lot of staple brasserie classics which any kitchen worth its salt cannot cock up. I don’t know if Handling had handled things so safely, but now he’s gone it feels as if it is drifting rudderless, with no discernible sign of a chef patron’s influence or direction. Where’s the flair, the passion, the individuality? And also, pray, where is the value? My colleague and I had the scallops to start with – the cookery was fine, but they only serve two for £12.50. Elsewhere you would get three or four for the same price. When we quizzed the multi-tasking sommelier/maitre d’/numptie, he defended the restaurant’s policy to have “small starters”. My advice then is not to bother at all for that price. Defensiveness, by the way, was an ongoing feature of this car crash of a meal but I’ll return to that.
As for the main course, the Josper grill showed great promise but what was delivered was very, very ordinary: a bog-standard steak and a just about acceptable béarnaise sauce I could’ve made myself.
And as for the triple-cooked chips? They weren’t even once-cooked. Anaemic, virtually raw potato therein – unforgiveable. They had to be returned.
Then there was the main fiasco of the evening: the service of the wine. The wine selection is limited in the first place, so we struggled, but we settled on one from Puglia, feeling in the mood for something sun-kissed to brighten up our day and with richness to complement the steaks. The waiter brought the wrong bottle (the cheaper Cantele). We immediately knew something was afoot – the screw cap being a bit of a give-away. We asked the waiter if he was sure he had got it right and he was vehement that he had. We asked to see the wine list again and pointed out the waiter’s error: he had indeed brought the wrong bottle. He was apologetic, but what grated was how he was so convinced he was right. Would they have got away with charging the higher price for the cheaper bottle if we hadn’t queried it? I suspect they might have done. For a second time we had to summon the multi-tasking sommelier/maitre d’/twit-in-chief (as there was only one person who looked like they had a bit of authority on the floor) and gave some live feedback. It’s only fair. And that’s the thing – this review should not come as a surprise to them as we provided constructive feedback at the time, but it was rebuffed. He proffered “a thousand apologies” whilst folding his arms – a stance so insincere I almost laughed. He just didn’t get it: we didn’t want his defensiveness and a “thousand apologies”; we wanted to know what would be done to rectify the problems for us and for future diners. He then poured salt into the festering wound by insisting on having the last word, muttering something under his breath about how his staff are all highly trained and many people like the restaurant. Well, they don’t, and your staff’s training has been found wanting.
We all have off-days and Caxton Grill is not beyond redemption, but it has some serious work to do before we can even give this a pass mark. Until then, it is best avoided.
St. Ermin's Hotel
2 Caxton Street
London SW1H 0QW
by J A Smith