When you think of Michelin-star dining you might be forgiven for thinking of small pretentious servings, or be expected to think of exceptional cooking, produce and service, and even be guaranteed to assume advance booking would be essential and menus would be pricey… but on New Years Eve myself and two others rocked up to the front door of this one-star restaurant close to Soho Square on Frith Street without a reservation, and were within minutes walked to one of several empty tables and seated, and had ordered within give minutes of entering the door!
What makes a restaurant worthy of owning a coveted Michelin star is a mystery to most. The only people who truly know what makes a restaurant Michelin worthy are the inspectors themselves… but I’ve always had my theories. I’ve been lucky enough to dine in my fair share of Michelin-starred restaurants and i’ve noticed patterns; the food is always exceptional, the decor and ambiance is relaxing and classy and the service is attentive, polite and friendly. There are other little touches that make your dining experience a Michelin experience, of course, but these are the key features that make you realise your lunch or dinner is something a little bit special.
At Arbutus, you don’t get that exciting feeling that you normally get when you are supposedly dining somewhere special. The hostess was perfectly friendly and welcoming, which was lovely, but that is almost where the good service stopped. When seated, we were offered a complimentary side of bread, but instead of the waiter explaining the varieties of bread we had to choose from, he simply held out the basket and left us to pick out which piece we liked the look of with our own hands. It made me feel a little uncomfortable if i’m honest; not that i’m too proud to pick out my own slice of bread, but it just suggested there was no pride in this piece of baking we were about to enjoy. It even suggested that the bread might have just been bought from the Tesco Metro over the road rather than made in house! I actually got the distinct feeling that the staff simply didn’t want to be there. While we can all empathise with that at times, it’s best not to let the customer know that you resent their presence or your life!
We ordered from the Working Lunch menu which is served Monday to Friday – a very well priced menu that consisted of two choices per course and will set you back only £19.95 for three courses. We started with the Hand chopped Scottish beef tartare – unfortunately I can’t tell you any more about this as the waiter simply plonked our plates down in-front of us with no explanation of how it had been prepared or seasoned, but I can tell you that it was full of flavour and came accompanied with a runny egg yolk on the top and a side of toasted bread (homemade? We do not know!) – it was a stunning plate of tartar but again, the service didn’t make enough of a show of it for my liking.
The same uneventful and uninformative delivery also goes for our main course – a very tender, well seasoned cut of rabbit with a side of polenta and cabbage (I think? – I wasn’t told when it was placed in-front of me) and a light jus. Somewhat oddly we were provided with spoons for this course… I’m not sure whether they intended for us to slurp up the remaining jus with the spoons at the end of the meal (there wasn’t enough of it for that if it was the intention) or to spoon the creamy polenta into our mouths, but that seemed a little strange, and almost encouraging of bad manners! But maybe I’m just missing something there. Regardless of the odd cutlery choices, the dish was lovely, very full of flavour, and brought together well with the well textured polenta.
To finish, the three of us shared a Warm Apple Crumble with Dulce de Leche and home made Creme Anglaise. This dessert came in one large pot and was placed in the centre of the table. We were apparently required to serve ourselves, but weren’t even provided with serving spoons – they came on request. Obviously serving ourselves meant that there was no attractive presentation; just a nice healthy sized dollop of fruity crumble in our warm bowls. The Creme Anglaise was thin but had a good, subtle flavour to it, but not enough to work in harmony with the powerful flavours of the Apple and Dulce de Leche – it was nicer when just poured onto the spoon and eaten separately. The crumble topping was crunchy and sweet, just how I like it, and the pieces of fruit was a good size. It might have been a nicer touch if we had each been given our own individual portions of Apple Crumble, which might have been the case had we not all ordered it, although I have no complaints with the size of the portions we each got from the sharing pot- it was hearty and filling, and in truth, a very good end to what was a very tasty meal.
As I hope you know, I am very much of the belief that if you don’t have anything nice to say then you shouldn’t say anything at all, and while I know i’ve given this restaurant a bit of a bashing when it comes to their service, the food really was good, hence why I have shared my experience with you – It just wouldn’t be fair to recommend a restaurant to you without you having a good idea of the overall experience you can expect.
If you want a well cooked, reasonably priced lunch, this is a great place to try. But if you want a Michelin-starred dining experience… I’d look elsewhere.