What draws chefs to the City, hub of Europe’s multibillion-dollar financial-services industry?
The Swedish philosophers Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson may have the answer in one of their songs: Money, Money, Money.
Jason Atherton is the latest restaurateur to enter London’s Square Mile. His restaurant, City Social, fills the space in Tower 42 that was occupied by Rhodes Twenty Four, a venue that started well and then lost the initial two letters of its buzz.
Atherton has a protestant work ethic and catholic tastes. He is opening restaurants around the world at an extraordinary rate. He added a fifth in London last week: Typing Room, at the Town Hall Hotel, Bethnal Green, the former home of Viajante.
Each of his establishments is distinct, from the modern gastronomy of Pollen Street Social, through the French bistro style of Little Social. At City Social, many of the dishes are British on a menu that is accessible without being predictable.
The restaurant is beautiful, with an Art Deco look by Russell Sage Studio, the designer behind Grain Store, Social Eating House, Dishoom, Savoy Grill, Petrus and Zetter Townhouse.
The space is refreshing for anyone who recalls Rhodes Twenty Four. There’s now a street-level entrance, while the airport-style security has gone, so you no longer have to run your mobile phone through an x-ray machine before you can get a drink. The lift is fast enough to risk sharing with Solange.
The focus is on good-quality U.K. ingredients, enhanced by their preparation and uncluttered by the chef’s ego. The head chef here is Paul Walsh, previously of the three-Michelin-star Gordon Ramsay. He also produced very good food in a tiny space while working at 28-50 Wine Workshop and Kitchen.
Prices are set at City levels, which means high. Most starters cost 9 pounds ($15) to 14 pounds, with mains from 18 pounds to 32 pounds. It’s very easy to shoot past 50 pounds a head for food alone and 100 pounds beckons if you factor in wine, water, coffee and service. With these prices, I suspect a set lunch might emerge in due course.
Atherton has cleared the floor, removing offices so that City Social runs through 360 degrees, as you’ll see if you can persuade your waiter to let you walk through the kitchen. The bar has shifted round a corner. It is elegant and welcoming.
Once you get onto the food, even familiar dishes are freshened up. Steak tartare is served with sourdough crouton, goat’s curd, truffle dressing and dried vinegar. There’s another tempting starter of roasted French quail, peas and broad beans, pancetta and sauce diable.
Simple Fillet Steak
Over three visits, I’ve tried most of the menu and my favorites include a starter of heritage and heirloom tomato salad, burrata and chilled tomato consomme. It’s refreshing and light. The main of rack of Romney Marsh lamb comes with a beautiful shepherd’s pie on the side. The rum baba is both pretty and boozy, and is balanced with English berries.
My favorite dish of all though is a simple fillet steak, cooked over charcoal and served on its own board, with duck-fat chips, salad, bearnaise and peppercorn sauce. It costs 32 pounds.
The service is friendly and attentive and the wine list is friendly, too, though I wish there were an entry-level Champagne -- or even an English sparkling wine -- that didn’t cost more than 70 pounds. I know why restaurants do this, but sometimes I wish they would give us all a break.
There’s a Loire sparkler (Montlouis, Triple Zero, Domaine de la Taille aux Loups) at 49 pounds if you like.
If you are on a budget, mid-range whites worth trying include the Vin de Savoie, Le P’tit Canon, Domaine Jacques Maillet 2012 (52 pounds). Among the reds, I’ve enjoyed the Pinot Noir, La Crema, Sonoma 2011 (59 pounds) and the aromatic St Laurent, Dorflagen, Weingut Pittnauer, Burgenland 2012, from Austria (50 pounds).
I’m not sure anyone would have predicted that Atherton would have become the most prolific restaurateur among the proteges of Gordon Ramsay, for whom he created Maze.
He has the kind of attention to detail that makes you wonder if the pens on his desk are perfectly parallel. It’s a wonder that any chef who cares so much can do so much. Yet if anyone suggests Atherton is spreading himself too thin, I suspect they haven’t eaten at many of his restaurants.
City Social is another winner.
City Social, 25 Old Broad Street, Tower 42, London, EC2N 1HQ, Information: http://citysociallondon.com/ or +44-20-7877-7703.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines)
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