db Eats: The Square

db’s resident foodie, Lucy Shaw, heads to the new incarnation of The Square in Mayfair for sublime smoked eel, Marsala-laced scallops and salt-baked pineapple.

The concept: Mayfair stalwart The Square changed hands in March 2016 when chef Phil Howard and his business partner Nigel Platts-Martin sold the Bruton Street site to Lebanese-born restaurateur Marlon Abela, who counts the two Michelin star The Greenhouse, Kyoto-inspired Umu and members club Morton’s among his assets.

Howard had been at the helm for 25 years, and had maintained its two stars for the last 19 with his signature style of precise, near-perfect cooking. Needless to say, Abela has big shoes to fill. Wanting to put his own stamp on The Square, Abela is championing ‘modern haute cuisine’, and has ditched French staples butter and cream in favour of more bracing flavours.

The décor: In keeping with this fresh approach, the venue has been given a modern makeover too. The space is almost unrecognisable from its former incarnation. Gone are the white walls, brown chairs and polished chestnut floor.

Smoked Lincolnshire eel with caviar

In their place are mustard seats, grey flooring and concrete walls hung with Jackson Pollock-like artworks. The overall feeling is one of dining in a gritty Shoreditch gallery. Whether or not that’s a good thing is down to personal taste.

On arrival we were placed beside a terrifying sculpture that resembled a headless ghost dressed in a blood-stained Kimono. More disconcerting than the sculpture was the fact that the dining room was empty save for the staff.

The lack of a soundtrack amplified the silence. Thankfully the room filled up as the night drew on, but, even then, the atmosphere felt unnervingly formal throughout.

The food: Keen to win back The Square’s second star, which dropped out of the sky following Phil’s departure, last October Abela enlisted the help of head chef Clément Leroy, who trained under Guy Savoy at his eponymous restaurant in Paris.

Leroy’s Japanese wife, Aya Tamura, who was most recently in charge of the puds at Alain Ducasse’s Jules Verne restaurant in the Eiffel Tower, has made the move to London to head up The Square’s pastry offering. In keeping with its Mayfair setting, the four-course à la carte will set you back £95, while the seven-course tasting menu costs £110.

Fine dining cues are present and correct, from feral goat’s butter served in a minimalist snow white receptacle to accompany our sesame-seed flecked, Comté-laced brioche, to an adorable trio of nibbles including a carrot and coconut tartlet and a creamy cone topped with salmon roe.

Orkney scallop with Marsala and coffee bean

All three were surprisingly sweet for the start of the evening and seemed more like petit fours than amuse-bouches.

Signature dishes: Leroy is a talented chef and there were moments of wonder during the meal. The standout dish was my smoked eel starter served with glistening pearls of caviar, salty shards of potato and pond green daubs of watercress purée with a sunshine-yellow swoosh of hollandaise in the middle.

The intricate plate had endless elements but didn’t feel over complicated, the smoky, bacon-like scent of the eel enhanced by the salty caviar and crunch of the potato in a joyful celebration of savoury flavours.

Another triumph was an Orkney scallop cubed into nine tiny pieces and served with hazelnuts, Marsala cream and a coffee bean foam.

With the punchy flavours of coffee and Marsala in the mix, I was expecting the delicate scallop to be overpowered, but the combination worked well, the Marsala bringing out the inherent sweetness in the scallop, and the subtle but confident thread of coffee bean running through it adding an interesting extra layer of flavour.

The mains were less imaginative and exciting than the starters, making me wish I’d ordered the hibiscus-laced langoustines instead. My pan-fried Yorkshire roe deer promised mushroom praline and bergamot cream, but these elements were overshadowed by the perfectly pink medallions of meat served with two parcels of foie gras wrapped in lettuce that looked like little brains.

The ‘trinket box’ pud

The drinks: In addition to his Michelin-starred restaurants, Abela also owns fine wine merchant O.W. Loeb, so knows a thing or two about wine. His list stretches to 1,300 bins and pays particular attention to Champagne and Burgundy.

Looking forward to trying some of the liquid treasures on my visit, the evening began hopefully with a gorgeous glass of J. Lassalle grower Champagne, which hails from the same village as Jay-Z’s Armand de Brignac – Chigny-les-Roses.

Our wine adventure took a nosedive however, when we were left in the hands of the rudest sommelier I’ve ever encountered, which tarnished not only the enjoyment of the wine but the entire evening.

Don’t leave without: Ordering the salt-baked pineapple for dessert. The show-stopper is first theatrically presented on a giant silver platter in its salt cocoon.

It then arrives in gleaming yellow triangles coated in a sweet toffee sauce with a scoop of salted butter ice cream on the side to enhance the salty-sweet interplay.

Instagram lovers will enjoy the final flourish of the meal – a bar of salted dark chocolate served with a silver hammer for smashing it to smithereens with. Rage rooms are a trend on the rise and, it has to be said, giving the chocolate a good thwack was hugely satisfying.

Last word: I wanted to like The Square more. While the food in general, and the starters in particular, show off Leroy’s technical flair and understanding of flavours, the experience was let down by the lack of atmosphere in the room.

The staff have been trained to keep things on a formal footing. Save for the rude sommelier they were largely lovely, but the harshness of the new interiors coupled with the lack of music made for a stark space where you feel uncomfortably self-conscious. When Phil Howard left he seems to have taken the soul of The Square with him.

It is a restaurant with huge potential but seems at odds with the current restaurant climate in London. Even Clare Smyth at Core has done away with white tablecloths and created a fun, light-filled, informal space in which to showcase her colossal talent.

The Square seems to be living up to its name at the moment and is a little bit too square for its own good. I’d like to see the staff loosen up, music fill the air and the life breathed back into the restaurant again. When that happens, it might be capable of magic.

The Square, 6-10 Bruton Street, London W1J 6PU; Tel: +44 (0)20 7495 7100

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