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db eats: Quince – the May Fair Hotel

db’s Marinel FitzSimons discovers what comes from Silvena Rowe’s Bulgarian/Turkish background and Ottoman style cuisine at this international hotel in London’s Mayfair.

As we settled down at our table at Quince at the May Fair hotel, I looked up just in time to see Chris Eubank strolling past in a pristine tailored suit, worn most likely for the first and last time that night, adorned by a Louis Vuitton ‘man clutch’ with the solid golden glint of a Rolex on his wrist. But that’s about as far as the glitzy ostentation went in what we felt was a comfortable yet effortlessly classy restaurant. With brightly coloured stain glass lozenges in the windows, reminiscent of The Ivy, and velvety red corduroy booths, there was a decidedly festive and upbeat feel to the place, even without taking into account the pre-emptive wreath and Christmas baubles hanging from the lights.

I’ve also thought that restaurants in international hotels have a difficult role to play; with an extremely different array of diners, from the international hotel guests mixed in with external visitors, the restaurant has to strike a careful balance of having enough character and individuality to give it credibility and to add an extra dimension to the cooking, but also be accessible enough for all the myriad nationalities who might stay at the hotel. Not an easy balance to maintain.

With the charismatic Silvena Rowe at the helm, however, with her Bulgarian/Turkish background and Ottoman style cuisine, there was little risk of Quince lacking in authenticity and personality.

To whet our appetites, as we ummed and erred over the menu, I ordered a Crimson Velvet cocktail, while my plus one opted for a glass of Chateau Musar rosé. The cocktail made of pomegranate, Galliano, Grey Goose vodka and egg was possibly a little sweet for me and my aggressively masculine palate, but what it lacked in tartness it made up for in presentation. The rosé, however, was absolutely lovely, with a savoury tomato and chutney flavour, it was the ideal pre-dinner drink in this setting. I stoically overcame my drink-envy and diverted my full attention to the menu.

After pouring over the menu, all of which looked very enticing, we ordered a selection of dishes, following our waiter’s advice of four small plates, two mains and a selection of sides. Thankfully, hunger was staved off with soda bread and focaccia served with olive oil and a more-ish, aromatic nut spice dipping mix while we waited in a state of ravenous anticipation for our mains. Despite my best intentions to keep room for the main food offering, the texture variations of the dense soda bread, wonderfully soft yet crisp focaccia, with the oil and coarse spiced mix proved too much of a pull and between us we made light work of the large appetiser.

Good service is not necessarily overly attentive; it should be intelligent and reactive, such as keeping your guests occupied while they wait for their food. The staff at Quince evidently had a very good, almost innate understanding of this, and our wine, a Chateau Musar Mosaic, a Cinsault, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 blend, arrived just when we might have otherwise started getting twitchy about when the next course might arrive.

Instead, we tucked into the wine with gusto, keen to try the brand’s restaurant range made from its younger grapes. While possibly a little toothy and tight, it had the same spice and depth of flavour as its older cousins, and certainly set the tone for the Ottoman feast that we had ordered.

Feast is probably the most apt word that could be used to describe the decadent procession of plates that made their way to our table for our starter. The dizzying array of smells, colours, even the range of crockery made the four plates seem somehow like a decadent Byzantine gastronomic orgy. Out of the sticky glazed chicken wings, silky avocado hummus and piping hot pitta, fresh calamari and king prawns, there was, however, one plate that outshone the others; the king prawns, roasted in pomegranate butter and anise flowers were by far and away the star of the show. Succulent, fragrant and with a wonderfully meaty, springy texture, each of the five sizeable prawns were a complete and utter joy to eat. The only problem was five makes for an awkward moment when there’s only one left between two – thankfully gallantry obliged, and my plus one graciously allowed for me to swoop upon the solitary prawn.

The wine proved a versatile and able companion for the starters, but we felt that it would come into its own with our mains which were 12-hour cooked pulled salted lamb, and lamb and pork skewers. A prediction that proved right as it developed a new level of complexity, not just with the food, but the longer the bottle was open.

The mains, which came with yellow cherry tomato salad, pilau rice and labneh (a thick strained yoghurty cheese) with paprika oil and nasturtium flower za’atar (a spice mix), felt a lot more European than the abundant decadence of the piles of food we’d attacked as a starter. While the sides were all presented as sharing dishes, having our mains placed before us on our own plates seemed a step back, away from the Ottoman king’s banquet of the last course. This is not to say the food was a step back; the diverse flavours all married very well, especially with the pulled lamb and the pickled cucumber slivers which were sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds.

The portions were herculean, and saw me struggling to finish the lamb and pork skewers. While the meat was beautifully flavoured with herbs and spices, given the sheer size of it, a touch of sauce would have helped and made it seem less dry.

Despite the almost audible groaning as my stomach strained to contain the mountains of food, we dutifully ordered ourselves the dessert selection after the plates had been cleared. The selection, was mercifully sensible in size. Artfully arranged on our plate were three little mouthfuls of rich but not too sweet baklava, gloriously refreshing blood orange sorbet, and a smooth vanilla panna cotta. The only thing that was missing was Turkish coffee to wash it down, which would have topped off the meal nicely.

The food had that wonderful authentic taste that you only get from really good home cooking (although possibly not my home cooking), but the buzzy high-end feel of the place gave the evening a real sense of occasion. Silvena’s food is fun, honest and packed full of vibrant flavours, and she has succeeded in creating an authentic sense of Ottoman excellence. The prices are not cheap, but certainly not unaffordable, and considering the quantity – not to mention the quality – of the food, it is certainly a restaurant to return to for a special occasion, even if just for those glorious king prawns…


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