29 March 2010
Beach Blanket Babylon, 45 Ledbury Road, Notting Hill, London W11 2AA
On an occasion where the destination was pre-determined by our ‘illustrious’ host, we were to convene for dinner at the affectionately known ‘BBB’ – also a nickname for a mutual friend of ours (cue muted sniggering in an ‘in-joke’ manner).
The important nature of the evening was met by frantic preparation – last gasp sprint to the dry cleaner; a shower more reminiscent of an army hose-down; a parting self-frisk checklist of keys, wallet, phone followed by a vain mirror glance and the fleeting decision of whether to leave the critical hat aside and enjoy the proceedings purely as an ordinary guest. Likely. The inevitability of running late forced the hand of driving vs. public transport which would later prove an imprudent choice.
Nestled in an unassuming residential street, Beach Blanket Babylon is far enough away from the tourist trap of Notting Hill's bustling market and infamous ‘Blue (now black) Door’, but close enough to Westbourne Grove to attract the local elite set. The extravagant Georgian mansion that houses the restaurant/bar come members' club has a distinct charm and air of exclusivity about it – however this could be misconstrued as somewhat of a pompous trait.
The interior is a nod to the decadent past of the opulent Rococo and grandiose Baroque style, featuring wall to ceiling sash mirrors, crystal chandeliers and ornate candelabras, although I fail to see where the Boho chic they mention arises, unless they mean the clientele.
After being greeted by a gracious enough maître d’, we were escorted to the dining area, through what felt like a plank walk on a pirate ship à la The Goonies, up steep narrow cast iron steps, to a cavernous alcove named ‘The Chapel’. There is a vulgar eccentricity to the eclectic mishmash of Gothic arches and Grecian furnishings; the mezza luna shaped table we sat at was highly unconducive to a social setting and we spent most of the meal cranking our necks just to converse with one another.
We were presented with a three course set-menu written with the banality of which made a motorway service station menu sound adventurous – a throwback to Heston Blumenthal’s reinvention of Little Chef? but given the circumstance, there was little choice but to slip out a wry smile and order.
For starter, I opted for scallops with truffle and butternut squash purée. The portion size was modest; nevertheless the scallops were relatively fresh and seared well. Though the taste of truffle was undefined, the butternut squash constituent of the purée perked up an otherwise indifferent starter. (Lamentably, it is exactly this type of entrée which seems to be de rigueur of so many mediocre establishments that put far more emphasis on the perceived market value of the ingredients than the quality and concept of a dish). The caramelized red onion and goat’s cheese tart that my vegetarian counterparts ordered looked abundantly more appetising but perhaps this was a case of “grass is greener” syndrome.
The main was prime fillet of beef with baby carrots, oyster mushrooms & garlic herb butter – totally uninspired, but for non-argument’s sake, let’s call it sustenance for a boozy night ahead. Even so, the fillet was prime and perfectly medium rare to order, unfortunately the baby carrots seemed like they had bypassed the stove between the root cellar and the pass, slung on as an afterthought – a teeth shattering crunch not even the most discerning Leporidae would have approved of. The oyster mushrooms must have had a nosebleed – already quite a ‘meaty’ fungi, it had no place being on this plate. As for the deplorable ‘garlic herb butter emulsion’, for one, I am snoring with boredom; for another, I am snoring with boredom. Were it not for the obstinacy of carrying my own pocket sized Tabasco (even Nigella does this), I would not have bothered to finish this course. After some gentle persuasion, I managed to secure a taste of my companion’s dish which in comparison had every component part cooked well and complimentary to each other – the pan fried sea bass was served with a superb tomato vinaigrette and an equally divine chestnut purée; the buttered spinach not too watery.
Crème brûlée is a traditional yardstick of dessert – a restaurant can excel remarkably or fall dramatically flat on its face with this ubiquitous pot of ‘burnt cream’. The one presented to us had a silky texture, was relatively unctuous although the crust could have perhaps done with a few seconds more under the torch to give that reassuring crackle of caramel; passable but nothing memorable.
Having heard reports about the paltry service and waiting staff, they indeed did not solicit any praise; on this occasion, they were merely passable. Nothing more to dwell upon.
After the meal, we were ushered to our reserved tables in the now heaving ‘Grand Banquet Ballroom' bar. Most of the clientele consisted of pretentious swathes of ‘new money’ types, the aforementioned Boho chic and the offspring of Russian oligarchs let loose for the weekend from their paid Oxbridge admissions. The one saving grace was the cocktails, which ebbed and flowed all night to the point where I had to ditch the concept of driving home in favour of a Scooterman™. The star of the evening, why, a porn star! – The Porn Star Martini, an expertly tended concoction of Cariel vanilla vodka, Passoá passion-fruit liqueur, passion-fruit purée, vanilla sugar and citrus syrup, served with a shot of Champagne; created by legendary mixologist Douglas Ankrah and worthy of a bartender’s ‘Toscar’.
In a place where everything is style over substance, the service slightly archaic and the food not worthy of any particular mention, the eventuality of great bartending proved that even in the bleakest of social environments, you can still conjure up a great night out. There are plenty of better eateries in the vicinity, but if u relish mixing with the trendy set and want a good night’s retox [sic], just aim for the bar after a meal elsewhere.