The Square, The Coburg Bar, deVigne Bar, HUNter 486, X-Men: First Class

June 13, 2011

The Square

My shoes are falling apart.  Both soles are cracked in two, behind the right ankle there’s a bit of rubber peeling off, and they look like crap.  None of this would have been a problem though, had it not been raining heavily as brother and I walked the distance from Green Park to The Square, a two-star restaurant on Bruton Street in Mayfair.

I had anticipated the weather and held aloft my umbrella, so our clothes were mostly dry by the time we arrived, but I noticed moisture had seeped through the cracks in my shoes to dampen my socks.  We were naturally a tad miserable, but were warmly welcomed, our coats taken, and escorted to our table.

The Square presented a large and extremely spacious dining room; not cozy in the slightest.  It has a distinctly modern feel, with clean lines, a polished wooden floor, tiny spot lights on the ceiling and vibrant abstract paintings.  Impressive without being overwhelming.

The set lunch menu here is updated often.  We could tell from the website (worth visiting just to see the amazing photos by the way) it had changed at least twice during the week, with courses altered and swapped out in favour of seasonal ingredients.

Our three courses were, I thought, well priced at £35.00.  From the extensive wine list we each had a single glass (£14.50) of Chateau Gloria.  I made this choice entirely at random and we were both pleased with the result: a full bodied red with a pungent whiff of chocolate on the nose.

A selection of bread was presented to us almost immediately.  I don’t normally care much for bread with my meal, but here it was freshly baked, piping hot and canape-sized.  It was a great start to the meal.  Salted and unsalted butters were flavoursome but unfortunately rather cold and therefore hard to spread.

An amuse bouche followed: a perfectly spherical trout fish cake in a light sauce.  It was very attractive and perfectly cooked, but failed to deliver any excitement.

We both chose the same starter and were both taken aback by it.  This was a green bean salad with a twist: what might appear to the casual observer to be grated cheese drizzled over the dish was in fact “shavings” of foie gras.  I sat back for a moment to contemplate the possibility of shaving foie gras, concluding that it must have been chilled to a sufficient hardness beforehand.

Regardless of the no-doubt highly sophisticated method of preparation, the result is quite tantalizing.  The shavings do not melt as such, but instead cling to the beans and nuts underneath, so that the whole dish is elevated to another level of richness and remains consistently on that level.  I found myself scraping the last of the foie gras off the bowl once I had devoured the salad.  This was the best dish of the day and absolutely worthy of the two-star rating.

The main course of ravioli of wagyu beef, grilled asparagus, mushrooms and mimolette was very pretty before I decimated it.  Sadly I only remembered to take the above photo in the aftermath, the delicate ravioli having been torn open to reveal the tender, almost ham-like beef.  I don’t remember picking up on the flavour of the mimolette, which Wikipedia tells me was the cheese grated over the top, but all other ingredients were well cooked, especially the vegetables.  This dish did not live up to the brilliance of the bean salad, but was far from disappointing.

I did not capture my dessert—an elderflower creme brulee—at its best either.  When it was served, the single scoop of ice cream was perched on top of the creme brulee beautifully, but this time, through no fault of my own, it toppled from its kingly dais into the sweet sauce below.  I must apologise, dear reader, for failing to take my photo in time.

Nonetheless it was a truly delicious pudding.  The wafer-thin surface of the mound crackled under the slightest pressure applied to my spoon, and beneath it the creme teetered on the paradisical border between softness and gelatinousness (there’s a word you don’t get to use all that often); not quite the texture of a panacotta, but more reminiscent of a wondrous creme caramel I gobbled at The Square’s sister restaurant, The Ledbury, in January.

The seasonality of the menu was no more evident than in the name of brother’s dessert: poached “new season’s” cherries with cherry donuts and yoghurt ice cream.  As you can see it was equally pretty, but brother summarised it as “lacklustre”, the cherries contributing little or no impact.  A shame.

At this point I was stuffed to the brim, and so we brought proceedings to a close with coffee.  My capuccino was above average. I could only stomach one of the petit-fours, which were yummy, chewy blocks of popcorn encased in some sugary mixture.

The rain had at least temporarily stopped and the sun was very much out.  This was our chance to transport ourselves to the next venue without me getting my socks wet again, so I asked for the bill.  The service throughout was top notch, although a touch too impersonal.  Our desserts took a lot longer to arrive than our other courses, but not so long that I would call it a hiccup, and the restaurant was at full capacity by then anyway, so the delay was understandable.  I left knowing I would come back sooner rather than later, perhaps for the inviting nine-course tasting menu.

The Coburg Bar

A five minute walk in the sunshine brought us to the Connaught Hotel.  I had been here before, twice, and had sampled the plush Coburg Bar on both occasions.  This time we had intended to try the alternative Connaught Bar instead, but staff informed us it was closed until 16:00.  Life is a cruel bitch, but Coburg was there to save the day, with its atmosphere of undiluted class.  Waves of relaxation washed over me and I felt at ease, sheltered from the downpour which soon resumed outside.  The seats here are officially the most comfortable in the world and the drinks made with obvious skill.

From The Coburg’s splendidly detailed “Bacchanology” menu I first picked a long island iced tea.  Perhaps I am flying in the face of decades of refinement in mixology when I say that I would’ve preferred the cola to have been infused through the drink as a whole, rather than condensed at the bottom of the glass as it was.  In spite of this negative point, it proved a refreshing drink which improved measurably as it went on, the cola fading into the more interesting blend of vodka, cointreau, gin, rum and tequila.

Brother habitually ordered a daquiri and was not let down, noting in fact something intangibly unique about the Coburg version, which I too could not pin-point from the brief taste I had.  A classic made to a standard above the norm.

We followed with a second round: a negroni for me and a hurricane for brother.  I struggled with the bitter aftertaste left by the Campari contained in my negroni, but this is not a criticism of the Coburg’s expertise so much as it is another revelation about my tastes.  Brother ordered his hurricane upon my recommendation, since I had enjoyed it a great deal on my previous visit: a smooth rum-based cocktail with a strong hit of passion fruit nectar.

deVigne Bar

At 16:00 we pondered our options: either relocate to a bar brother had chosen the night before, Apres, or exert ourselves much less by moving down the hall to the Connaught Bar, as previously planned.  In the end I took charge and we left for Apres, thinking it the more adventurous path to tread.

This proved to be the wrong decision because Apres was closed when we got there (it opens only briefly during the day from 11:00 to 14:00, before locking down and beginning its transformation into a club for the evening).  Rather than hang myself in despair there and then, I took a moment on my phone to find a substitute.  The usually trustworthy World’s Best Bars app led me to the Mandeville Hotel and the deVigne Bar, touting it as “like a perfectly tailored suit rendered hip by the odd post-modern flourish”.

That is, I think, the least accurate description one could give of this place.  Far from being a perfectly tailored suit, it more closely resembles a cheap and tacky shirt.  The bottles behind the bar are the only good-looking thing about this small, uninviting room.  There is no atmosphere to speak of.  The walls are lined with freaky portraits, the tables are covered with some sort of waterproof lining, and the chairs are basic to say the least.

The drinks are no better.  My Karlsson’s Blood—a vodka and tomato mix—was well decorated with a strawberry and spiral of lime zest, but its only distinguishing feature was a peppery heat coming from unknown spices.  The tomato flavour, if it can be classified as a flavour, was little more than an earthy, vegetal undertone.  Very disappointing.  I wanted to leave as soon as possible.  Brother cannot recall now what his drink (stylishly out of focus in the background of the photo above) was called.  He describes it as “refreshing”.

HUNter 486

Back to the World’s Best Bars app (and I am now slightly concerned that this review is turning into a not so subtle advert for said app) which finds for me the trendily named HUNter 486 at the Arch Hotel, again only a few minutes walk away.

We are both instantly filled with joy.  The long room oozes style in its design.  Lights in the shape of volleyballs hang from the ceiling by their wires in clusters above our heads.  Behind a tall divider, we spy cool alcoves and overhear a conversation about art or somesuch.  All the staff are impeccably dressed.  We can see the kitchen from our table and a roaring fire, perhaps for cooking pizzas or loaves of bread?  I have forgotten the collosal let-down at the Mandeville.

Cocktails come, as they do when you order them, in a timely manner and in glasses.  Brother gets two glasses: one shot-size and filled with prosecco, one containing his “hoochie” martini, which he grants me a taste of.  “You made the better choice” I say.  It is superb and bursting with the familiar passion fruit, as well as being one of the most bright, practically luminous, drinks I have ever seen.  My ginger and passion fruit martini (foreground) is excellent too.

I highly recommend HUNter 486.

X-Men: First Class

To end the day, we hopped on the Circle Line to Vue Westfield and to the cinema contained therein.  This time we have tickets to an “Xtreme” showing, which is the finest approximation of IMAX quality I’ve yet seen, although to give IMAX credit where credit is due, the two theatres are miles apart in image size, visual and audio quality.  I will say it is worth paying the extra for the bigger screen.  It also helped that this picture was in 2D, without the horrific colour wash-out that seems to be the hallmark of the 3D movement.

As for X-Men: First Class, it’s a mixed bag.  I can’t say that it starts well and ends poorly, or vice versa.  It’s not that clear-cut.  There are plenty of fantastic scenes—action-packed, epic, contemplative, character-driven, emotional—that hold it together, and I was thoroughly entertained for the duration.  And as in Thor, some clever humour is frequent and well placed to break up the seriousness of the story.  This is, after all, a tale of the origins of Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr; Professor X and Magneto.  Both pillars of comic book history, both archetypes, one an idealist and the other driven by passion and political realism.  The fiction deserves to be treated properly, and as a fan I emerged from the cinema satisfied that it had been.

But there are some very weakly played (or poorly written – I can never really tell which it is) parts.  Some characters, I felt, were entirely redundant—simply there to fill out fight scenes.  And an unsettling amount of cheese—excessive even by superhero film standards—cannot be overlooked.  The placement of Michael Ironside (of Total Recall fame) as a United States navy commander in the final action sequence in particular, was beyond ridiculous, and I found the symmetry of several climactic scenes a little too perfect.  At times this old world of the X-Men felt unreal; a weird hybrid of thoughtful exploration of personal themes and truly wacky montages.

I will say as an aside that if, like me, you loved Ian McKellan’s Magneto in Bryan Singer’s films, you will no doubt appreciate Michael Fassbender’s carrying of the torch.  I also delighted in MacAvoy’s young Xavier, chatting up Oxford undergraduates in bars with practiced lines about genetics.  I can imagine a parallel universe’s version of First Class consisting entirely of these two playing chess, fencing, sipping whisky and debating the future of mutant-kind.  The possibility that such a universe exists is perhaps the most compelling reason for physicists to unlock the secrets of inter-dimensional travel.