I really wanted to come here. So much so that I got my lunching friend to change his reservation from High Timber to this new restaurant round the corner from the Barbican. My argument had been that High Timber had so much red meat on the menu that I’d be utterly compelled to have a matching glass of red wine. And that I am sleepily useless after a glass of wine at lunchtime unless I keep drinking steadily through the rest of the day (which typically results in a different type of day, and not one suited to conducting an effective video conference, say). So, Chiswell Street Dining Rooms. My suggestion to meet here was driven by (a) curiosity at finding a new restaurant in a blank part of the London culinary map, just round the corner from the Barbican (b) a solidly positive review in Time Out the previous week.
I’m happy to report that the lunchtime conversation was delightful, and that I was persuaded into a half glass of white wine without any dramatic consequences. The restaurant itself? Sigh. Well, I liked the colours (waxed dark wood lightened with sprightly lime-ish green) and the open feel of the place. As it steadily filled with impressive lunchtime traffic, the noise remained contained without being cold. We were able to discuss macroeconomics and theatre without bellowing.
But I felt pretty flat about what filled this attractive space. The menu is the by-now familiar upscale modern British that you would recognise from a Hix. Seafood features strongly, with a selection of oysters, crab and sole. I had six terrifying langoustines that I had to approach sideways, unarmed by tools (well, I had four – I donated one to my friend to save my fingers from bleeding, and one fell apart as I dismantled it). I was having some difficulty navigating the main courses around the icebergs of my dietary restrictions, so then chose an unexpectedly uninspiring starter salad of quail’s eggs (of which two, halved), poached artichoke hearts (of which two, halved) and lots of frisée. Mustard aioli tasted neither of mustard or garlic overmuch. If you are unfettered by allergies, the menu is probably fine enough, though I noticed my friend was silent about his Berkswell cheese and leek tart, and left most of his richly dressed crab.
It’s hardly the first time I’ve had challenges negotiating a menu, though. Normally, these days, waiters are kind and thorough in helping confused or constrained diners. So, here’s the thing. Our waiter was Not Good. He was very good at the following: rolling his eyes, pursing his lips, pinching his lower face so that it looked as if it had been swallowed by his neck. Vinegar-faced, sour-featured; all the hyphenated descriptions that unimaginative writers use for modestly ill-intentioned spinsters. He got friendlier towards the end of the meal, perhaps at the prospect of getting the table back, or perhaps because he caught me rolling my own eyes and thought me a kindred spirit. So, after a tentative enquiry after gluten-free bread drew a bemused shake of the head, I thought better of any further collaborative endeavour.
Now, several people have written about good service at Chiswell Street, and a much smaller number have been disappointed. I’m guessing that on average the service is warmer than we received, since the general buzz about the place is in the major key. Given how often we go to the Barbican Centre, I might well go back to test the experience (or at least visit the slick bar) under a different set of circumstances.
But the Barbican Foodhall has kicked up many, many notches in the past year, with its industrial cool décor, Severn & Wye smoked fish and Hope & Greenwood sweeties. If the suits ever discover it’s acceptable to put food on a tray, Chiswell Street will need do some quality control on its staff.
The Chiswell Street Dining Rooms are at 56 Chiswell Street, London EC1Y 4SA.