Many of us tend to avoid ordering the set lunch in smart restaurants, be it for reasons of choice, embarrassment or pride.
What are we missing? At Pollen Street Social, you’d be missing what for me was the best meal of the year so far.
I’ve tried the inexpensive option at seven well-known establishments in London and -- to make my misery complete -- insisted on drinking only tap water and the cheapest wines: a glass each of red and white per person.
You’ll find that you are offered plenty of opportunities to spend more on items from an aperitif to tea or coffee. There may be supplements. Some places will ask if you’d like a side order with your main, which a good set lunch shouldn’t need. About 30 pounds ($48) was the ceiling price I set for the food.
Here’s what I discovered, sticking to my bargain guns:
COQ D’ARGENT http://www.coqdargent.co.uk/
The restaurant: This large rooftop establishment near the Bank of England is usually packed with City executives. Chef Mickael Weiss’s cooking is of a high standard.
The food: There’s a wide choice of four dishes per course. The starter of game terrine with celeriac, hazelnut remoulade salad and cranberry jam was enjoyable and wittily presented. Roast salmon wrapped in pancetta and crushed herb potatoes with red-wine butter sauce was also good, though I’m bored with salmon. Frozen violet-and-blackberry parfait with violet sorbet stood out, and I don’t normally eat desserts.
The wines: Garganega Torre del Falasco, Veneto, 2010; Barbera del Piemonte Amonte, Cantine Volpi, Piemonte 2009, at 5.95 pounds each.
Verdict: This was a very good meal, with plenty of choice. I’d readily consider it anytime I eat lunch at Coq d’Argent.
The bottom line: Lunch is 25 pounds for two courses and 30 pounds for three. The bill for one was 47.14 pounds.
DINNER BY HESTON BLUMENTHAL http://www.dinnerbyheston.com/
The restaurant: Heston Blumenthal’s London venue opened in the Mandarin Oriental hotel more than a year ago, with a menu inspired by historical British cuisine. Executive Chef Ashley Palmer-Watts helped develop the dishes and runs the kitchen.
The food: The starters were lemon salad with goat’s curd, buckler sorrel and raisins; or ragoo (sic) of pigs’ ears with anchovy, onions and parsley. This was a good choice between a dish that is light and fresh and another that assaults you with full-on flavor. It was similar on the mains: cured salmon with beetroot; or slow-cooked pork belly with potato puree, black pudding and sauce Robert. The desserts -- prune-and-tamarind tart or orange buttered loaf -- were superb, particularly the latter. More options and more menu changes would be welcome.
The wines: The red was Esprit de Pavie Bordeaux 2008, a merlot blend, and the white was a gruener veltliner, Lois Loimer Kamptal 2010, at 7.50 pounds each. These were among the most enjoyable wines I tried.
The verdict: The dishes are as imaginative as you might expect and this was the second-best meal. But I’ll never eat at Dinner without ordering Meat Fruit, which costs 14.50 pounds.
The bottom line: The set menu is as much as 32 pounds for three courses. Lunch for two cost 103.79 pounds.
GOODMAN CANARY WHARF http://www.goodmanrestaurants.com/
The restaurant: This is the third London branch of Goodman, one of London’s three finest steak restaurants. (The others are CUT and Hawksmoor.)
The food: Dishes are individually priced, with starters of braised beef fritter and salad (6 pounds) or cream-of-parsley veloute, with a poached hen’s egg (5 pounds). The main was a choice of steak with fries or salad (18 pounds) or fillet of mackerel on marinated fennel and capers with a salsa verde (14.50 pounds.) Dessert was vanilla panna cotta (4.5 pounds) or ice cream (3.50 pounds). The food was generally good apart from some chalky chunky chips and oddly mushy sorbets.
The wines: Pinot Grigio, Tramin, 2010; El Campesino, Cabernet/Carmenere, Chile, 2010, both at 6 pounds. For red, I would have paid the extra 1 pound for a California Zinfandel. For white, there was nothing I wanted under 10 pounds.
The verdict: If I were on a budget at Goodman, I’d order a low-priced starter (such as lobster-and-corn chowder, at 7.50 pounds) and the burger (13 pounds) rather than the lunch menu.
The bottom line: Lunch for two cost 88.88 pounds.
The restaurant: Massimo Riccioli, of La Rosetta in Rome, opened this opulent establishment last April. You can see from the beautiful room that you are deep in luxury land. The place does little lunchtime business, so the set lunch is a bargain.
The food: There’s a choice of four dishes per course. I had sardines beccafico-style (rolled in breadcrumbs) with grilled mackerel fillet, sweet-and-sour sauce; linguine with clams, prawns, squid, mussels and tomatoes; sweet and salty ginger creme brulee.
The wines: Muscadet-Sevres-et-Maine sur Lie, Domaine de la Quilla, Loire, 2010, 7 pounds; Vino Rosso, Ottavio Rube, Piedmont 2009, 6.50 pounds. (The red is organic and a bold choice: It has character.)
The verdict: The dishes on the set menu show real thought. Don’t expect any buzz in this 100-seater seafood restaurant.
The bottom line: Lunch is 18 pounds for two courses and 21 pounds for three. The bill for one was 38.81 pounds.
POLLEN STREET SOCIAL http://www.pollenstreetsocial.com/
The restaurant: Jason Atherton created Maze for Gordon Ramsay before opening Pollen Street Social less than a year ago. Atherton is a creative chef who believes food should be fun.
The food: Every diner is served with canapes, a pre-dessert and petits fours and there is a choice of three dishes for each course. I ordered Colchester crab mayonnaise, avocado, sweet-corn sorbet, caviar; Yorkshire partridge, game bolognaise, carrots, spiced plum jam; chocolate “Black Forest” fondant, praline, liqueur sponge, cherry sorbet. The combination of Atherton’s creativity and luxury ingredients with his generosity as a restaurateur made this a standout meal.
The wines: Maria Gomes, Luis Pato, Bairrada, Portugal 2010, 7.50 pounds; Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Syrah, Pierre Gaillard 2010, 6.50 pounds: excellent-value wines that worked well with the food. This is the best of the bunch.
The verdict: In London, the finest luxury lunch is at Le Gavroche, whose 52 pound meal (including wine, water and coffee) is booked out months in advance. Within the price range here, Pollen Street was best.
The bottom line: Lunch is 22 pounds for two courses and 25.50 pounds for three. The bill for one was 44.44 pounds.
QUO VADIS http://www.quovadissoho.co.uk/
The restaurant: This Soho classic has a new chef, Jeremy Lee, whose move from Blueprint Cafe is big news in the London food world, where he is highly respected. The model Claudia Schiffer and “X Men” director husband Matthew Vaughn were seated to my left and former Sun editor Kelvin Mackenzie to my right. Quo Vadis is that sort of place.
The food: There’s a choice of two dishes per course, which is why I started with celeriac-and-fennel soup. It was fine. The marinated chicken with mint, courgette and onions was something else: The skin was crispy, the meat moist, the salad full of character and the whole dish big on flavor. I skipped dessert -- almond cake or chocolate brownie -- as both sounded heavy.
The wines: Riva Leone Gavi Piemonte, 2010 and Chateau Fontareche Vieilles Vignes Corbieres, 2009, each at 4 pounds.
Verdict: Little choice but good value and inspired cooking. If I worked near Quo Vadis, I might go back every day. The challenge would be to stick to the set lunch.
The bottom line: Lunch is 17.50 pounds for two courses and 20 pounds for three. The bill for one person for two courses was 28.69 pounds.
TOM AIKENS http://www.tomaikens.co.uk/
The restaurant: Tom Aikens is known for his sophisticated food and his affluent Chelsea customers. He closed his flagship before Christmas, removed the fancy furnishings, created a Noma rustic look and reopened last month with a simplified menu.
The food: Starters: consomme of scallop, with red-pepper puree, lemon oil; or salad of pickled mushrooms, sourdough toast, truffled butter. Mains: Poached cabbage with smoked bone marrow, poached bacon, grains; or roast John Dory with crab bisque, Jerusalem artichoke and vanilla puree. Dessert: poached lychee, coconut tapioca, fresh coconut or selection of cheeses.
The wines: Chardonnay, Les Templiers, Languedoc, 2010, or Cabernet Sauvignon, Les Templiers, Languedoc, 2010, both at 6 pounds. Good value and plenty of choice by the glass.
The verdict: Aikens is such a creative and adventurous chef, I’m not sure there is much point in going for a budget lunch. (If I wanted to spend less, I’d eat at Tom’s Kitchen.) Yet the set lunch, with its layers of flavor, does provide a relatively simple introduction to his ambitious cooking.
The bottom line: Lunch is 24 pounds for two courses and 29 pounds for three. The bill was 92.25 pounds for two.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own.)