Henrietta is a restaurant in a boutique hotel on Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, around the corner from the actors’ church St Paul’s, which is very plain. It is as if, when actors die, their feathers are put away and they die as they really are: plain. As Uncle Monty might say: I choose the Doric. Henrietta Street is full of tall, sad houses — the kind London does so well in fiction and in life.
They are grand and desolate; you can imagine misery behind them. This one is red brick and, because it is a boutique hotel, they have tried to build a fairyland behind the façade: wealth and whimsy are unwilling collaborators but I can see the attraction, and it is all denial. London is so Edwardian in looks, but now it has the Candy Brothers to shower it in glass. It is a robot Edward VII of a town. On Henrietta’s website, there is a photograph of a man in a red velvet jacket reading the London Evening Standard. Or possibly Metro. It may be Giles Coren but he only has half a face, so who knows? Where is the other half of his face? But this is the ideal guest at Henrietta. The real guests have good hair, and moustaches, and some have hats.
I cannot divine the hotel, because I am unwilling to pay £324 to stay in a small room in Covent Garden, especially if it has bobbly grey carpets. Some ‘luxury’ is false, and should be simply called ‘a small room in Covent Garden with a bobbly grey carpet for £324’. But the ground-floor restaurant has a menu designed by Ollie Dabbous. He was the first man to sprinkle flowers on plates of food, and the only one of them you did not want to punch in the face. Who eats a meadow if they are not a goat? His Dabbous in Whitfield Street did crazy things with eggshells and hay. This restaurant, meanwhile, is ‘ingredient-led’, as if it could be anything else. Led by Marxists, for instance. Or pens.
It doesn’t look like a Henrietta. It isn’t wearing a hairband; it doesn’t have Daddy issues; it isn’t reading Tatler and believing in it. If we are naming places after people, it looks like Mick Jagger after a bath: clean but seedy. There is a terracotta wall and an open kitchen — false equality, but the chefs look like the customers — a glittering bar, pale walls, low tables and strangely shaped velvet chairs, for we are, if you are into decorology, living through a renaissance of velvet chairs. They are taking over, spying on us, moving into positions of influence. One day, perhaps, they will control us entirely. These ones are quite small; this is not a formal restaurant. It is a casual restaurant with formal food for people wearing hats. There is a painting on the ceiling of a cat lying down. It looks flat, and undangerous, unless it fell on you.
If you can survive the ennui of a fashionable yet casual restaurant in Covent Garden (‘laid-back, effortlessly cool,’ said Time Out, like a computer program written by a mad PR flunkey out to destroy respectable criticism), the food is fine. It is not amazing, as it was at Dabbous — they guillotined an egg, as if it were an egg aristocrat, though I cannot remember if they placed the head in the hay — but this is less political. It is to please the crowds of laid-back, effortlessly cool people who do not know what they want because their identity is written by magazines and hats. There is flatbread — with aubergine, and also with lardo — a bloody sirloin which comes alone, like a dog’s breakfast, a pinkish goose, and a glass of wine for £39. It’s all OK, but I long for hay.
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