Marco Pierre White's management style was as extraordinary as his food in the 1990s when he was one of the youngest chefs in the world to win three Michelin stars.
Cooks who failed to live up to his standards were punished by being sent to stand in the corner. It was not unheard of for all four corners of the kitchen to be occupied simultaneously. Another punishment was to be placed in a rubbish bin.
In his book White Slave, White says that customers who annoyed him fared little better: They were expelled from the restaurant. This was such a regular event that he developed a five-step eviction process that involved stripping the table bare.
White was the U.K.'s first rock-star chef, a man whose skill, passion, good looks, and bad attitude sucked a generation of British blokes into the kitchen. He's still viewed with awe by young chefs.
But even a crime scene investigator would have difficulty in finding much of this DNA in Marco Pierre White Wheeler's Rib Room & Oyster Bar, which has just opened in London's City financial district.
The décor is sparse: There are large prints on the wall of the famous Bob Carlos Clarke photographs from 25 years ago. Otherwise, the most striking features are the chairs, which have a strange metal ring attached at the back. They look like they come from a bondage club, chosen to restrain diners keen on escaping.
It's no secret in the hospitality business that White is not involved day-to-day in the restaurants that carry his name. In this case, when I asked one staffer if he has met White, he said the chef was planning to come to the opening party next month.
I've met White a few times. He is scarily charming. I generally avoid the word charismatic, but he knows how to command your attention. He is a remarkable character whose proteges include Gordon Ramsay. No need to guess where Ramsay learned kitchen etiquette.
You probably don't have to be told that first impressions matter. Someone at Wheeler's does.
You enter via a bar that was empty at lunchtime and smelled of cleaning products. At night, there were a few drinkers and the aroma was of after-shave. The daytime smell was less offensive.
There was no sign to the restaurant, where the reception is hidden behind a door at the far end of the room.
Booking a table was no better. Of three calls, one wasn't answered; a second was forwarded to voicemail saying don't leave a message; the third made it straight to that voicemail.
The Wheeler's name has actually been around for a while—since 1856 to be exact—but this is a new incarnation. If you put White to one side and think of this as a hotel dining room serving comfort food to men on expense accounts, it is OK. It's not a car crash. Still, it comes across as curiously old-fashioned, with a menu and wine list squeezed into a tight three pages by means of shrinking the typeface.
The most interesting starter is Black Pig Balls, at 7.50 pounds ($11). This is black pudding, coated in breadcrumbs and pan-fried. The crunchy-soft texture is appealing and there is flavor struggling to escape. But the dish is under-seasoned, like almost everything I tried over three meals.
Also, nothing arrived hot. I don't know where the kitchen is but I'm guessing it's far down in the basement.
My favorite starter is baked St Marcellin, with roasted vine tomatoes and toasted sourdough (8.50 pounds). What a beautiful fat cheese, with a taste that lingers. The crab bisque (8.50 pounds) and the prawn cocktail (11.50 pounds) were under-seasoned, the prawns with the texture of something out of a catering pack rather than the sea.
The coq and shrimp curry with fresh mango and ginger was sweet, only not in a nice way. Grilled Dover sole was cooked perfectly and was enjoyable with added salt. The "triple cooked" chips were OK as chips go, though lacked the crunch normal with this preparation, as though one of the three stages was defrosting.
I tried two of the "finest quality Angus steaks, dry-aged for 28 days”: The sirloin (26.50 pounds) and the rib-eye Boston style with oysters (32.50 pounds). The fried oysters were great but the meat lacked flavor until you poured sauce over it. There was no depth. I prefer the nearby Le Relais de Venise, where two courses cost 24 pounds.
The desserts, including Boxtree Eton mess and sticky toffee pudding, were the best part of the meal. They were comforting in a nurturing kind of way, like having your mum feed you with the stuff you want to eat, rather than what is good for you.
Wheeler's might have been all right for the City 20 years ago. At a time of long, boozy lunches, this part of London didn't require the gastronomic fireworks White was performing then. But there are many good restaurants in the Square Mile now and White’s bursts of brilliance have fizzled. Wheeler’s limps along behind the pack, an uninspiring throwback where everything is old-fashioned except for the prices.
Seems like it's time for somebody to stand in the corner.
Wheeler’s is at 5 Threadneedle Street, Threadneedles Hotel, EC2R 8AY; +44-20-7657-8088 or www.mpwrestaurants.co.uk/restaurants/wheelers-london-bank.
Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines.