53 Park Lane, London W1K 1QA (020 7629 8888). Starters £16-£42, mains £32-£135, desserts £16-£20, wines from £84
Editors don’t send their journalists to cover wars because they like misery and carnage. They do so because the readers need to know about the carnage. By the same token, albeit with rather less moral urgency, I didn’t go to the pop-up of the Polo Lounge on the rooftop of London’s Dorchester Hotel because I like watching rich people pay ludicrous prices for cack-handed food that’s a gross insult to good taste, manners and commercial decency. I went because some risible hospitality operations need to be called out. Being positive is all well and good, but that shouldn’t mean absolute shockers get a free pass.
The original Polo Lounge, so named because wealthy polo players once frequented it, opened at LA’s Beverly Hills Hotel in 1941. Obviously, nobody now goes for the Italian-accented American bistro food. They go there to be in a Hollywood power room; to eat your shrimp, as I once did, two tables down from Whoopi Goldberg, surrounded by the ghosts of Astaire, Garland and Dietrich. At the London version I got to eat a table away from Alex Salmond. And that was the least troubling aspect of my evening. I had brunch at the original a few years back. It was all perfectly adequate and perfectly overpriced, in a Beverly Hills sort of way, which is where it should remain.
The Dorchester Group is owned by that uber homophobe the Sultan of Brunei, who introduced punishments under sharia law for homosexuality, including the death penalty, until he was forced to back down because of an international outcry. As reviews go that’s pretty damning, but let’s push on. The Beverly Hills Hotel is part of the group, so they’ve transplanted an etiolated version of the Polo Lounge to the rooftop of the mothership on Park Lane, until the end of August. On a hot London evening it’s delightful to be outside, nine floors up with a view over Hyde Park. With all that comes an expectation of greatness, reinforced by the stipulated minimum spend of £60 a head.
The menu tells me they are delighted to bring “a taste of Tinseltown” to London complete with “pink bougainvillaea”. And there it is, climbing the wall behind me. I touch it. The bougainvillaea is plastic. So are the tables, the place mats and various of my fellow diners’ body parts. There’s anatomy on display tonight that hasn’t moved since 2010. The menu promises “live music”. They have a glum-looking DJ, blundering through a soundtrack of club tunes. In the sense that she’s pressing play it is, I suppose, a kind of live, but also deathly.
But look, we’re on the top of the world, so let’s get into it. Bloody hell, look at those prices. The bread basket is £16. The salads start at £28. A bowl of pasta is £38. A steak is £135. Certain items are described as Polo Lounge “signature” dishes. Prime among them is the McCarthy salad, named not after the commie-hunting senator, which would make a certain vindictive sense, but a polo player called Neil. It costs £38, and arrives looking like someone with an organising compulsion has been at the Garfunkel’s salad bar.
There are separate sections for chopped beetroot, skinned tomato, bacon minced to a paste, chicken breast with the texture of value-range cotton wool, cubes of sweaty, squeaky cheese, shredded egg and, on top, an avocado that’s been halfway through an egg slicer. Underneath is shredded romaine, including the gnarly hard bit at the centre. That displays serious commitment to gross profit, in all senses. They offer to toss it table-side. Once it’s been mixed with an over-emulsified, over-sweetened balsamic vinaigrette that looks like congealed gravy, I know where it should be tossed. Then I think of the poor pedestrians nine floors below. The combination of that terrible dressing, smothering over-processed ingredients murders appetite. Incidentally, get that dressing on your napkin and people will think you had gastric issues and couldn’t make it to the loo in time. (Small note: the toilets include bidets; what is that about?)
The three diminutive crab cakes for £32 have a rigid shell the development chefs at Findus would envy and taste only lightly of crab, as if embarrassed about the star ingredient. They come with a sauce reminiscent of school-dinner salad cream circa 1975. A £38 bowl of rigatoni bolognese has a grimly sweet and cloying sauce that tastes mostly of tomato ketchup and profit. It’s the dish an oligarch, who only sees his kids every other weekend, chooses for them. According to the menu these dishes are meant for sharing. I apologise to my companion for doing so. They will also be delivered “as they are prepared to ensure you receive them at their best”. This is their best? Oh.
Perhaps the solution is a drink. I bang on about pricey wine lists and get shouty when the cheapest bottle is over £30. Well, buckle up. The cheapest bottle here is £84 for a bog-standard Bardolino rosé which generally retails for around £13.95. Here it’s six times more expensive. I order the second cheapest, a Terrasses Rosé from Château Pesquie. It’s £90. I find that online for £12.75. That’s a multiple of seven. Almost all the wine list is marked up like this. Somebody sat in a room jack-knifed over their calculator, fingers punching furiously, and thought this was fine. It isn’t fine.
But there are positives and they must be accentuated. There’s a sweet cloud of chilled strawberry soufflé, with a little compote at the bottom, which is a true delight. It’s a £20 delight, but a delight all the same. Then there are the waiters who are all friendly, relaxed and completely on it. I imagine them, on their break, with thousand-yard stares, brooding on a career move. A life in organised crime would certainly be less socially divisive.
A few years ago, my less than positive review of the Parisian gastro palace Le Cinq was dismissed by the management as “rich bashing”. Here, it’s the restaurant that seems to be bashing the rich, flogging them dismal food at inexplicable prices. At the end, a perky waiter asks me how it all was and in my gruesome passive-aggressive way I say, “Fine”. She replies, “Amazing.” I think: “Yeah, let’s go with that.” I have a bill for over £370 for a meal that included a dreadful salad, terrible crab cakes, mediocre pasta, and a grossly overpriced rosé. If that isn’t amazing, I really don’t know what is.
In other ‘give me strength’ restaurant news, the management of the Ivy Collection has issued an apology and deleted a promotional video for the newly opened Ivy Asia in London’s Chelsea from Instagram, after it was roundly criticised on social media for featuring racist stereotypes. The apology, also posted on Instagram, described the video as ‘totally inappropriate and culturally insensitive’. Richard Caring’s company promised to conduct an ‘internal review’ and ‘educate’ themselves to avoid repetition. As the Ivy Spinningfields in Manchester has featured a ‘Geisha Room’ since 2018, they certainly have a lot of self-educating to do.
And there’s more. The blind BBC journalist Sean Dilley took to social media recently to express his huge frustration after he and a friend, who is also blind, were refused entry to two restaurants around London’s Leicester Square because they had their guide dogs with them. This contravenes the Equalities Act 2010 and is therefore unlawful, however can only be challenged through the courts, which is arduous and time consuming, rather than by being reported to the police. That does not relieve restaurants of their legal duty to allow guide dogs into their restaurants. Plus, unlawful or not, it’s the civilised, hospitable and humane thing to do.
But let’s finish with some good news. Recently I reported that the great JoJo’s in Tankerton was crowdfunding to buy the freehold of their building, so the restaurant would survive. They have hit their £100,000 target. JoJo’s lives (jojosrestaurant.co.uk).
Email Jay at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1