There is a danger to reviewing on the cheap, even for bloggers a notorious tight group of souls. This came to mind in considering Arbutus, a spare and clean-lined establishment just south of Soho Square. Planning to eat at Gordon Ramsay, St. Johns, and The Fat Duck does not come cheap, and I was delighted to learn that Arbutus, a well-regarded new restaurant in Soho, emphasizing Haute-Comfort food, was open on Sunday evening, and offered a three course pre-theater menu for 17.50 pounds. As Arbutus had been named the New Restaurant of the Year by Time Out London, the offer was too tempting to pass up, and, if the choices were not what I would have selected without constraint, they matched my tastes quite well.
And, truth be told, these three courses were sufficiently well-prepared that I wondered what I might have been treated to had I placed myself in the hands of Chef Anthony Demetre. Pre-theater menus have two traits that serve them well for diners, but less well for critics. They are designed to be prepared efficiently and are chosen because their food appeals to a wide swath of dinners. So, I was not presented with offal or with those dishes that are awash in the chef’s sweat.
Still, considering the rate of exchange, a dinner for $35.00 (with VAT included; service of 12.5% is added) is a deal. I began with a lovely soup of crushed tomatoes, which was as its name suggests a robust and textured red. The soup was fine served hot, but would have been more luscious if chilled later and served in the late summer tomato heat. This chef is willing to experiment with herbs, and I particularly admired the thin slices of fennel that enhanced the depth of the tomato.
The main course was a simple Rabbit Loin with Mustard Sauce, Herb Risotto, and Baby Carrots. If the artistry didn’t astonish this diner, the mustard sauce was beautifully puckery, and the emerald risotto was powerfully flavored with what must have included half of a herbarium. The dish was not flashy, but well-proportioned and rapidly prepared.
Of the three courses, dessert was the least striking: Rice Pudding Mousse with Strawberry Juice on a bed of fresh Strawberries - appropriate botanically, as Arbutus is refers to the botanical name for the strawberry tree (a tree that once grew in Soho Square). As advertised, here was rice pudding and strawberries. While the pudding was certainly creamy, it seemed more of a pudding than a mousse.
As judged from the menu, Arbutus offers more complexity than my pleasant meal provided. Whether Arbutus achieves these goals is a question that I leave for those with deeper pockets.
63-64 Frith Street
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