I have mixed feelings about Covent Garden. For such a fine-looking area, with its market stalls and street entertainment, it seems to perform as a tourist junction. An airport terminal in London’s West End for foreign hauls to mix and gather and bumble around knocking into each other; photographing the eclectic mix of punks, students and affluent John/Jane’s in their evening opera attire.
Tuttons Brasserie sits on the edge of the Garden square (11-12 Russell Street) and has been calling this rather enviable position home for over thirty years. The building is chic, built from Portland stone and red brick; designed and built for The Duke of Bedford’s estate in 1886 (a nice commission if you can get it). Inside reflects a Duke’s requisite: graceful and lowly lit with dark wooden chairs and padded-back seating, yet the colours seem pearly and muted and rather saturated.
I ordered the starter of spiced potted shrimps with melba toast. It arrived looking like frozen Vaseline greased into a pottery ramekin. A stiff consommé. The shrimps were imbedded within a translucent butter that had no depth of flavour and you needed a chisel just to chip the top off and access the shrimps. It tasted greasy and bleak and would have been put to better use bottled up and used as lubricant at a German swinger’s party. I was informed by the maître d’ that it was a “shrimp butter” made using “shrimp shell (what? Huh?), cloves, garlic, shallots, spices and brandy”. It had no punch or smack of brandy whatsoever.
To summarise, my appetiser introduction to Tuttons Brasserie was revolting. I complained to the waiter who didn’t put up much of a fight and seemed to agree that it looked just as awful as it tasted. At least we had a mutual understanding. He then promptly returned with the menu and I ordered the beef fillet cappuccino with rocket & aged Parmesan (Grana Padano) and extra virgin olive oil (£8.95) as my replacement that on arrival, looked rather dainty on the large, white plate. My first impressions were fooled and it tasted spot on. The thinly sliced beef tasted rich and well-seasoned and against the Parmesan and olive oil was simple and flavoursome.
Truffles – who it seems is already gearing towards the beach season – ordered only the wild mushroom and basil soup (£5.50). It arrived in a large, rustic bowl and looked glorious in all its fungi beauty. The stock was thick and the wild mushrooms buffing up the meaty, wholesome flavour.
As a side order we shared buttered new potatoes (£3.50), mixed olives (£2.75) and a selection of breads (£2.50). All together a complete waste of £8.75 with only the potatoes adding anything extra to the meal. The breads were my intelligent order to accompany the mushroom soup – bread and soup an obvious marriage – they are also sponge demons of dough and flour and full of salt, fat, milk, yeast and baking soda. Envelops of carbohydrate they absorb liquids only to expand in the stomach, making it the bandit villain of all known diets, from Atkins to Miami Beach. For someone who is going to eat an appetizer as their main course, side orders – bread especially – are a no, no, no-go. And why is it that some restaurants feel the need to charge you for bread when the majority of restaurants nowadays give it to their clients as a handout?
These days I’m leaning to Italy for my wino kicks and a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, 2008 (250ml £7.95), did little to lift my spirits. It’s softer and more accessible than Chianti or Valpolicella but despite the generous aromas of plums and herbs and its mellow finish, one glass of warming spirit was never really going to perform miracles.
My main (and this is rather unlike me) was a vegetarian option; gnocchi, with sautéed wild mushrooms, crumbled goats’ cheese and toasted hazelnuts (£12.95). The balls of gnocchi were dense and lumpy in a thick and creamy base, only livened up by the richness and crunch of the goats cheese and toasted hazelnuts. The wild mushrooms were damp and flimsy and added no extra value to the dish. The creamy base was far too thick and overbearing and the dish failed on all levels. I think it would have been taster as a simpler creation, perhaps with Gorgonzola sauce or a dashing of red pepper and garlic?
Other main options included: roast rump of lamb with fondant potato, savoy cabbage and a red wine jus (£17.25); pearl barley risotto with truffled porcini mushrooms and pecorino cheese (£13.95) and especially the pan-fried pollack with sautéed chorizo sausage, new potatoes, aioli and slow roasted tomatoes (£16.50), all seemed exciting and more appropriate choices. I have no plans however, immediate or henceforth, of returning to Tuttons Brasserie.
To end we shared a mellowing passion fruit pavlova with crème fraîche (£6.00), both of us still a little peckish and eager to leave and disappear into the evening London mist. Next door to the Brasserie is Dirty Martini, “Covent Garden’s premier cocktail bar & one of London’s top destinations for a stylish & sophisticated night out in the West End.” We thought about stopping in but decided on a nightcap coffee elsewhere. Tuttons Brasserie was disappointing for a weekend pleasure trip and enough was enough for the evening.