Hotel restaurants can be depressing. Unless they’re clearly visible from the street or have garnered a local reputation, they can be sparsely populated by solitary guests too tired or timid to seek a memorable meal out there in the big city. W1 Brasserie avoids this ‘it’ll do’ fate, and so it should, as service is lovely and there’s some decent cooking going on. At around £60 a head for three courses and half a bottle of modest wine, however, it needs something extra to turn it into destination dining.
This is not so much a room, more an area off the main lobby, which may tempt diners in, although the 62-cover restaurant isn’t visible from the street and there’s still the psychological barrier of hotel reception to negotiate. The decor is cautious and corporate. There are no windows, and a row of suspended slate slabs is more ‘what on earth?’ than ‘wow!’ At least red banquettes, dark wood and soft lighting warm up the space. One glaring error is that rectangular tables for four have been turned 90 degrees to make them into tables for two. This leaves you a long way away from your dining companion. Only lovestruck octopi could comfortably hold hands on a first date.
On a wintry weeknight, about half the tables are taken. One suspects the polite, smart-casual customers are overwhelmingly hotel guests. Loungey musak works. Service is friendly, informal, professional and well-paced. The sommelier is keen to suggest wine and food matches, and his recommendations are sound.
This is a meaty menu and no mistake, featuring various Casterbridge steaks from the West Country plus pork, veal, duck, chicken and sausage. Even one of two pastas, often a vegetarian’s saviour, features pig’s cheek. Whilst veggies at least have three options, for pescetarians, there’s only roast haddock with cockles and leeks.
The nine starters are less flesh-centric. A daily special of cured salmon, blood orange and beetroot proves very de nos jours, an abstract artwork of thoughtfully positioned cubes, discs and smears. It has substance as well as style, though; the fish is deliciously moist, soft and gently cured, the sweet beets are of varying hues. More segments of blood orange would zing up later mouthfuls. Salt and pepper squid with chilli dipping sauce (£9.50) is neither too chewy nor too soft. The coating is crunchy but too salty for some tastes, whilst chilli and soy are the dominant sauce notes. It’s fine, though you’d find at least as good for half the price in Chinatown.
Onto the mains. A grilled, spatchcocked poussin with honey, garlic, orange and lemon glaze (£19.50) comes on a wooden board with grilled mushroom and tomato, and good old onion rings. There’s little sign of the glaze flavours but plenty of juicy, tender, well-flavoured meat. Also tender and big on flavour is a treacle-glazed duck breast (£18.50), the skin of which is crisped and charred to a T. Blackberry jus balances the rich meat, fondant potato is fine, and parsnip and date puree an oddly lovely, muddy addition. As for sides, faultless, fat, crisp, fluffy chips at £4 will feed two, whilst thyme courgettes (£3.75) are al dente and really do taste of thyme.
Passion fruit soufflé with orange ice cream and passion fruit sauce (£8.50) is technically perfect but might prove a tad mouth-puckering for some. From a really interesting selection of ice creams (why can so many venues not think beyond chocolate, strawberry and vanilla?), chocolate, coffee and hazelnut scoops all deliver on flavour and texture and come sandwiched between the thinnest slices of nutty biscotti.
Lunch or pre-theatre dinner at £13.95 for two courses, £17.95 for three sounds a good deal. There’s also Sunday brunch, when you can make your own bespoke Bloody Mary, at £26.95.
We may be in a posh hotel but this is still a brasserie, so the wine list is quite modest, though perfectly adequate. There are 12 champagnes, £49-£350, two by the glass. The only non-champagne sparkler is a £42 prosecco; might a more modest fizz prove a welcome addition?
The global list also features 21 still whites and 17 reds (six of each by 125 or 175ml glass or 375ml carafe), priced £19.50-£82. There are also two 'fine wines', a 2006 Puligny Montrachet, Vincent Girardin, Vieilles Vignes from Burgundy at £89.00 and a 2001, Château La Croix Toulifaut, Pomerol from Bordeaux for £115.00. As the former is only £7 more than a Nuits St George from the main list, is there really any point in sectioning them off?
2011, Vina Mar, Pinot Noir, Reserva, Chile (£30) proves soft, smooth and supple. 2010, Amalaya, Malbec, Cabernet, Mendoza, Argentina (£31) is full bodied and fruity with an agreeable slight tickle on the tongue. As for whites, 2011, Vista Flor, Bodega Norton, Sauvignon Chenin Blanc from Argentina (£24) has a huge and fabulous bouquet of country flowers but tastes crisp and straightforward.
The Last Word
This is a cut above most hotel brasseries. For £60 a head, though, a bit of wow-factor wouldn’t go amiss. Making the room feel more luxurious and special would be a start. As is it, it seems unlikely many fashionable diners will seek it out when so many restaurants beckon from the street, and others have long-established reputations or are the in-place of the moment. And that’s a shame; skilled cooking and lovely service like this deserve a wider audience.