Smith & Wollensky is a restaurant from The Shining: a terrifying American steak joint by the Thames, four months old, with a £10 million refurbishment and no passing trade; it sits opposite the Georgian houses in John Adam Street, like a cow biting into a wedding cake, wondering what went wrong. It seats possibly 400 people; when I went on Sunday evening four tables were taken — one by a pointy-beard convention — and a whole floor was closed but still lit. I love this: the spectral restaurant; the restaurant from your nightmares; the restaurant at the edge of an apocalypse, boasting of butchering — and ageing — its ‘patriotic’ meat on site. I toy with the fantasy that it is empty because the regulars are at the Labour conference, planning to establish a socialist paradise in Berkshire: but I let it go. Maybe the marketing department has died.
Green is the dominant colour here; the green of the Wicked Witch of the West’s nose; and the brown of cow; and much dark gold from expensive lighting; dim globes hover like moons over the surf ’n’ turf abyss. It is a beautiful restaurant, made by America’s insane capacity for self-mythology, but it is famous for its steak. ‘The best steak in London,’ says the advertising, as if begging to be gainsaid. (It is not the best steak in London. It is probably not even the best steak in Adelphi.) But there is something gauche and needy about S&W, and this makes me like it. You can, in certain circumstances, like a restaurant where the food is not good. It is rare, but it happens.
A small drama: I book for 8.30 p.m. A woman telephones and says the kitchen will close at 8 p.m.; can we come earlier? No, we cannot; we have a tyrannical child and if I do not tuck in Peter Rabbit at the designated time, his head will blow off. OK, she says, but I offer to order in advance anyway (co-dependent, that’s me, co-dependent with restaurants): tomato and burrata salad, scallops on guacamole with bacon, two of the largest — if not the best — steaks in Adelphi and what it seems we must, so horribly, call ‘sides’.
8.30 p.m.: Motown drifts across the booths: the emptiness is thrilling. The food is not. The scallops are fat and boastful, and OK, but guacamole and horrid overfried bacon does nothing for them. The steak — a 21-ounce ‘NY Cut Bone-In-Sirloin’ (£52) and a 24-ounce ‘signature Bone-In-Rib-Eye’ (£55) — is so large I have difficulty forming any response beyond fear. This restaurant believes in redemption by size. I cannot imagine the size of the chickens, which I fear are as large as wolves; and I cannot bear to think about the lobsters at all.
Is it the best steak I have eaten in London? No, that was at Beast. It is simply large. The ‘sides’, meanwhile, are awful: lumpy chips; hash ‘browns’ (plural) which are a cold-ish cake of lumpen potato, inedible, and a potato baked god-knows-when. If you can drop £10 million on a refurbishment, you can bake a potato.
We crest the cult of large, unwisely, to the end: we order, for pudding, something from the ‘Excuses to Linger Menu’ (obesity is an excuse to linger): Gigantic Chocolate Cake. As in Immense Custard. Incalculable Crème Brulee. It comes with a churn — a churn! — of alcoholic cream and a large and soggy cow biscuit; the late-capitalist memorial cow biscuit, with Baileys Irish Cream. I have never got properly drunk on chocolate cake before. S&W is a very sinister — and therefore interesting — restaurant. Go, before it travels back to its home dimension with its cow ghosts.
Smith & Wollensky, Adelphi Building, John Adam Street, London WC2 6HT, tel: 020 7321 6007.
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