Perhaps it was my four-month stint working in Restaurant PR that has meant I’m suddenly even more tuned in to new openings than I was before, but it seems like at the moment, there is a hot new restaurant launch almost daily! Brat, Cornerstone, Hide… all featuring weekly in the critic’s columns of the nationals or in the feeds of every influencer on Instagram. The problem is, with all the hype generated by the critics and the ‘grammers, it becomes extremely hard to then get a table at these new spots, so really you have to get in there before they do. That’s where soft launches come into their own…
Soft launches allow for diners to enjoy a new restaurant frivolously, usually with a 50% food discount in exchange for an open mind and forgiveness of any discrepancies in the cooking or the service. These are pre-launch practise runs, after all. Critics rarely dine during a soft launch, and influencers are usually invited in on a specific press day, so this really is the time to book if you want to be one of the first through the door.
Currently still in its soft launch phase, with the official launch scheduled for this Thursday 24th May, is Neptune, situated within what was previously the Russell Square Hotel and now known as The Principle. Neptune is a modern seafood-focused restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, offering thoughtfully sourced British seafood from their oyster bar as well as the highest quality British produce from their wood-fire grill.
The Grade II listed dining room is exquisite, like something out of a Wes Anderson film, with high pillars stretching up to an ornate peach ceiling, decorated with beautifully detailed statues that look over the tables. The chairs are velvet and sit on a wooden floor; there are fabric chandeliers hanging across the room and delicate lamps providing a warm light over the tables. In the centre is a pewter-topped bar that serves elegant drinks and offers a natural, low-intervention wine list.
My oldest pal Janey and I dined last night, at a table by the window. I ordered a glass of orange wine (£7) to begin the evening as we looked over the menu, which is filled with intriguing and seasonal dishes, many of which took our fancy. The wine was smooth and intriguing, with a bit more body than a pale rosé (my usual colourful wine of choice) but not as much as a pinot or sauvingnon; an in-betweeny wine, if you will.
On the starters menu, it was a tough call but we both chose to begin our meal with the Asparagus & dippy egg (£11), a simple yet outstanding dish with beautiful fresh asparagus and an egg, mixed with herbs and cream served within its shell. The egg tasted like nothing I’ve tried before; the yolk was golden, the white like a creamy, sweet mousse and the asparagus crunchy and buttery; the perfect dipping implement.
For my main, I chose the Slipsole, with seaweed butter, white asparagus and capers (£24); a soft, tender fish not too dissimilar to the meatiness of monkfish, the skin was lightly seared, as was the asparagus. The saltiness from the capers was harmonious with the sweetness of the brown shrimp, both of which were peppered across the plate.
Janey meanwhile had a second starter, the Lobster salad (£18) with peas, sorrel and kaffir lime. As plates of food go, this one was beautiful and elegant; the pink flesh of the lobster matched the romantic hues of the room, and the peas were vibrant and fresh.
The great thing about soft launches is you can very easily justify a dessert; Janey and I only needed a glance before deciding what we wanted to order. Her: the chocolate sorbet (£8) arrived rich and smooth in two perfectly formed balls, while I ordered the Citrus tart (£7) with a quenelle of burnt marshmallow cream which looked like a herbed butter. The glossy tart was a sunshine yellow and had a lip puckering sourness to it, held within a crisp, buttery pastry case. It was beautiful but towards the end, my palate was beginning to tire of the tartness, which is when the marshmallow cream really came into its own.
We finished our plates and requested our bill, and were thrilled at the pleasantly small number residing at the bottom of it – the true blessing of a soft launch! Of course, the test of a soft launch is whether the guest would have been happy paying the full price of their meal anyway, prior to the discount. Well, admittedly I would rarely order a main dish to the value of £24 so perhaps it’s an unfair question, but knowing the quality of dishes at this price, I would say my Slipsole fit the bill very well. Janey’s lobster salad, however, was small for £18 and far better suited to the price after the discount – but as is the way with lobster; an extravagant and over-priced ingredient at the best of times. As is usually the case, the drinks weren’t discounted, but with glasses on wine starting at £6.50 and cocktails from £8, I would say the drinks are certainly of good value, and if you’re looking for a pleasant spot for a cocktail this is a beautiful venue for such an occasion.
Neptune has been described as the coolest new restaurant in London, and it certainly deserves the attention it’s going to get when it officially opens later this week. It’s certainly a special occasion venue – suited to dates, birthdays and celebrations – for people who love elegant and cleverly cooked seafood.