Db Eats: Carrara
Take a trip to a London West End theatre and it’s like entering a different world – and not in a good way.
Right at the beating heart of a city with one of the most dynamic gastronomic scenes in the world, theatre bars remain stranded in the 80s. If you can’t face an over-priced Paris goblet of mediocre Merlot or Chardonnay, the bar menu might stretch as far as a basic gin & tonic or – as if to cement the time warp – cream Sherry.
Fortunately the West End is full of excellent options for pre- or post-theatre refreshment, because its theatres seem determined to make sure their audience spends as little time and money on the premises as possible.
Thankfully, in an age when there’s plenty of excellent entertainment on offer at home, a few theatre venues have recognised that it might just be worth making the extra effort to entice people off their sofas.
2010 saw the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon unveil an upmarket restaurant and bar offering as part of its major refurbishment. Now St James Theatre has become the first newly built theatre complex to open in central London for 30 years, bringing with its jazz, cabaret and comedy fuelled programme a suitably modern approach to the theatre experience in the form of its restaurant, Carrara.
Located just above the ticket hall at the top of a white Carrara marble staircase, the venue’s executive colour scheme of grey, white and brown colour is smart without being too formal, its ambience lifted by the buzz of theatre goers floating up from below.
Catering both for the pre-theatre crowd and those in search of nothing more culturally stretching than a good dinner, the menu fits uncontroversially into the modern-British-with-a-European-twist mould with an understandable leaning towards dishes that are reasonably quick to prepare.
Meanwhile the wine list neatly ticks off the Old World classics and New World favourites across a sensible single page, which includes a decent selection available by the glass and a few treats for special occasions.
We settled on a £29 bottle of Macon La Roche Vineuse 2011, which offered just the right level of uncomplicated but reviving liquid refreshment for a midweek evening.
A bowl of celeriac, celery and apple soup with caraway seeds and tarragon oil was, perhaps fortunately, not the flavour collision it threatened, but could have done with delivering a little more of the character promised by its ingredients.
By contrast, what was listed as simply a squid salad arrived with a generous riot of red and yellow cherry tomatoes, rocket and, in its exhuberance, perhaps a dash too much balsamic vinegar.
Moving from the “Act 1” into “Act 2” – depending on your sensibilities either playful punning or a laboured approach to menu design – we attacked a meaty portion of perfectly pink calf’s liver, neatly complemented by slivers of sage and pancetta.
Alongside this, a piece of salmon was rescued from potential blandness by its crisply seared exterior, noodles that had somehow been flavoured with a tangy green tea twist, further accentuated by the yuzu sauce. Without going over the top, it fitted a general pattern of attractively presented dishes that suggested care rather than fuss.
Entering the “Finale”, we polished off the waitress’ recommendation of sticky toffee pudding. Although this lacked the truly dark, decadent quality of benchmark examples, its lighter touch would prove more user-friendly for anyone needing to stay awake in a warm, dark auditorium immediately afterwards.
The same could certainly be said of a lemon panna cotta with blackberry coulis and lemon curd. Its artistic presentation looked as though it had been inspired by a picture of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, while the flavours brought the meal to a bright and light close.
Located outside the West End theatre hub, Carrara’s food and drink offer is a welcome new addition to the area around Victoria which remains one of the few corners of central London to have been overlooked in the UK capital’s restaurant revolution.
This place isn’t about showing off to clients, pioneering exotic foodie trends or three-hour blow outs; it’s about providing a pleasurable, hassle-free, wallet-friendly add-on to the theatre experience.
Of course, not all theatres have the space or inclination to tackle the very different art of restaurateuring. That said, if they could demonstrate some recognition that the world has moved on during the last 30 years, then they might just find it easier to attract that younger generation of theatregoers to fill the void left by their dwindling subsidies.
12 Palace St,
Tel: +44(0)207 592 0348