Rambla

Address: 64 Dean St, Soho, London W1D 4QG
Bookings: Booked through Opentable
Day: Wednesday
Meal: Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 7/10

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 14.17.07Our first review of 2018 finds us in Rambla, a Catalonian restaurant named after Barcelona’s most famous boulevard. Rambla is buried in heart of Soho, and our seat in front of an enormous window makes us spectators onto a slightly less illustrious thoroughfare, Dean Street.

The pane of glass is so large, and the table so close to it, that as night falls and crowds gather, you almost feel immersed in nocturnal Soho, with all its noise, colour and oddness, which is a mixed blessing, but great for veteran people watchers, or those struggling for conversation at the table.

Inside, the restaurant is equally lively, waiters, waitresses and chefs calling out to one another across the open kitchen, and new diners stumbling in with hungry anticipation written across their faces.

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 14.16.54Is this anticipation deserved? The food is certainly nice here. A plate of ham is perfect, marbled with just the right amount of fat, its texture oiled and rich, each strip curled temptingly on a wooden board. A bowl of blistered padron peppers – which my partner in culinary crime won’t lay a finger on – are wizened, salted and wonderfully bitter. A pair of pan con tomate, the bread gently toasted, the tomato almost made into a paste, suffused with a subtle olive oil, shards of salt scattered carelessly across the top, is good.

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 14.16.41But I was left with a feeling of slight disappointment. Some of the reviews I had read of this restaurant over the previous month or two spoke of it with the reverence and awe normally reserved for places of worship or Unesco-approved world heritage sites. Critics described the dishes served at Rambla as stunning, as things of beauty, food worth clogging an artery for. I did not feel quite like that.

Four small wheels of cured salmon were so salty that even my partner in culinary crime, no stranger to smothering a dish in condiments, had to take several water breaks to get through them. Some lamb chops with rosemary aioli were a little washed out, the meat lacking that vibrancy of flavour. Some seabass with Jerusalem artichoke was good, but it didn’t have me scraping the plate to ensure I removed every last morsel.

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 14.16.26Perhaps my expectations were too high. Perhaps Rambla had been projected too far into the stratosphere by frenzied restaurant critics for me to leave without a tinge of disappointment. If I juxtapose Rambla with Barafina, it falls short. I would probably place it half a rung below Ember Yard as well.

The restaurant also did not help itself by having a number of waitresses whose English language skills were so minimal that they struggled to function on the floor of a restaurant. No one is asking that restaurants staff themselves exclusively with English literature graduates from Cambridge, but if a waiter can’t understand the phrases “please can I have a gin and tonic?”, “one more of these please,” or “bring me the bill!” then we have a slight problem.

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 14.16.13I will go back to Rambla. A place so well-regarded deserves a shot at redemption. It is also great value for money. But for now, I am not ready to sing its praises, even drunkenly on a street in Soho.


Dean Street Townhouse

Address: 69 – 71 Dean St, Soho, London W1D 3SE
Bookings: Booking required
Day: Tuesday
Meal: Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 6.5/10

Dean Street Townhouse is a small island of calm conservatism in the middle of Soho. It serves all the staples of the British culinary repertoire, from Dover Crab to Dover Sole, from Fish & Chips to Slow-Cooked Shepherd’s pie. And it serves them in warm, solid, convivial surroundings, the red banquettes and long mahogany bar a million miles from bohemian. 

Screen Shot 2017-12-10 at 11.30.22Which is absolutely fine. To a point. Half-way through my plate of mince and potatoes this point was probably crossed. I’d ordered it up because I was intrigued as to how a restaurant could make two such simple, rudimentary ingredients interesting and enticing. I still haven’t found out.

The first forkful of mince was tasty, full of a blunt, forceful flavour. By the fifth forkful I was reaching for my glass of water to take the edge off this bluntness. Halfway through the meal I felt that the food was bludgeoning me with its down-to-earth simplicity, each forkful replicating the last to the nearest detail, like hearing a 5-second piece of music on loop forever. And what was provided alongside this mince to add some spice and exoticism? A bowl of unadorned potatoes.

Screen Shot 2017-12-10 at 11.29.47This is probably the sort of sturdy, belly-filling food an army would relish on the eve of a winter’s battle, but it was a bit much for a Tuesday night in Soho. 

My partner in culinary crime had ordered a rib-eye steak, with a cup of chips and a bowl of béarnaise sauce. This was more of a success than my mince, but was again simplicity taken to the extreme. The steak really was just steak. You could have examined the plate with a microscope to detect any trace of any other food type or ingredient, and you would have come back empty-handed. The steak lay there, imperious and alone.

Our starters were somewhat more interesting: we both had cured salmon, with a wedge of lemon and a heap of pickled cucumber. It was refreshing, had some nuance, some subtlety. Which was what was lacking from the rest of the food.

Screen Shot 2017-12-10 at 11.29.34This isn’t an attempt to rubbish Dean Street Townhouse. It is actually a good restaurant. What they served was well cooked. The venue is fun, the atmosphere is jolly, the staff are friendly and professional. What’s missing is that bit of panache, of culinary creativity. They need a maverick in their kitchen. They need a slice of bohemian Soho.