Steak Knives Out as London Restaurants Fight for Diners

STK bills itself as, “Not your daddy’s steak house.” Really?

The music playing at this new American import to London was like a wedding disco for dad dancers: Genesis, Tina Turner, Abba, Madonna, Bon Jovi and T-Rex bounced around between 75 and 80 decibels, loud enough to be irritating to the sober.

Steak is one of London’s main culinary trends, with STK, MASH and Hawksmoor Air Street opening in the past three months. They join Goodman, CUT and other outfits that have popped up since the original Hawksmoor, in Spitalfields, opened in 2006.

STK, with outlets in Atlanta, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami and New York, distances itself from its carnivorous counterparts by attempting to be sleek and sexy. It never escapes the look of the hotel restaurant that it is. The service is intrusively friendly for London, as was the case when Palm opened in 2009. (Time hasn’t been kind to Palm, of which little is now heard.)

The food at STK is good in parts. A starter of three burgers made with wagyu beef was excellent, and great value at 10.50 pounds ($16.80). Prawn rice krispies was another winning starter. It’s a shellfish bisque that snaps, crackles and pops.

A side of mac & cheese was well made, while another of Yorkshire pudding with onion sauce was like a song by the Bee Gees: “Tragedy.” The parmesan truffle chips were chalky and dense.

Prime Ribeye

And the steaks? Well, I left them to last because I don’t have much to say about them. My U.S. prime ribeye (35 pounds) was overcooked and underseasoned. It wasn’t bad but it wasn’t great. My colleague’s sirloin was better.

The highlight of the meal, apart from the starters, was the dessert: A Taste of the Fairground, which includes doughnuts, popcorn, toffee apples and marshmallows. It’s more than enough for two people and costs 8.50 pounds.

336-337 Strand, London, WC2R 0LR. Information: or +44-20-7395-3450. Rating: **1/2

MASH London

MASH, or Modern American Steak House, is an import from Copenhagen, where it’s a popular and respected chain. In London, the company has taken on the expanse of the old Titanic restaurant, with room for 300 to 350 customers.

I was the only diner when I showed up for lunch at 12:30 p.m. on a Tuesday and was able to survey the empty tables stretching into the distance. Into an Art Deco room, MASH has inserted a touch of the diner, with ranks of banquettes topped by small glass screens to lend an air of intimacy.

Over a couple of visits, I found the steaks pretty good. The Danish ribeye (30 pounds) has enough flavor to be more than a novelty, as does its Uruguayan cousin (29 pounds). OK, we are not talking the deep flavor you are likely to find at Hawksmoor or Goodman or Hix, but it’s acceptable.

The starters are all 10 pounds, and the pan-fried veal sweetbreads were the highlight of two meals. The fried squid with chili and lime was overcooked (and taken off the bill) and didn’t look promising. The sides -- including chili fries and chunky onion rings -- are acceptable. The warning about the fried jalapenos should be heeded: They are hot.

The wine list features a large selection of U.S. options, but it’s hard to find bargains. The 2007 Lamoreaux Landing, Pinot Noir, Finger Lakes (from New York) was drinkable at 49 pounds. Offering more wines by the glass would be one way of enticing diners, who may struggle to recognize anything they want at a price they can afford.

You’re likely to spend more than 50 pounds on food and it helps to be abstemious to stay below 100 pounds a head for the bill. In a city that has great steak restaurants, it’s not clear what MASH brings to the table. It doesn’t stand out for food, value, ambience or service. Other than that, it’s fine.

77 Brewer Street, W1F 9ZN. Information: or +44-20-7734-2608. Rating: **

Classy Fish

I saved the best for last. Hawksmoor Air Street has all the qualities that make the other three Hawksmoor restaurants so good -- wonderful steaks, cool designs, excellent service -- and adds top-class fish to the mix.

Mitch Tonks, one of the country’s top two or three seafood chefs, took care of the fish menu and helped source the fish, which arrives each day straight from Brixham market in Devon. There might be better fish in London. I haven’t tasted it. The deep-fried oysters are not to be missed.

It’s a big restaurant, seating 235, compared with 160 at Hawksmoor Guildhall, 140 at Seven Dials and 116 at Spitalfields. There must be some limit to the number of diners who want steaks, even when they are this good. Diversifying into fish looks a smart move, but then no detail is too large or too small for the team behind Hawksmoor. Except one.

They were playing “Rocket Man” while I was trying to eat my lunch. Why? As Hamlet could have said, “The best is silence.”

5 Air Street, London, W1J 0AD. Information: or +44-20-7406-3980. Rating: ***1/2

What the Stars Mean:
****         Incomparable food, service, ambience
***          First-class of its kind.
**           Good, reliable.
*            Fair.
(No stars)   Poor.

Sound-Level Chart (in decibels): 65-70: Office noise. 70-75: Starbucks. 75-80: London street. 80-85: Alarm clock at closest range. 85-90: Passing bus. 85-95: Tube train.

(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.)

Muse highlights include Manuela Hoelterhoff on arts, Martin Gayford on London art exhibitions and John Mariani on wine.

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