St Alban, 4–12 Regent Street, London SW1
St Alban is the latest restaurant from Chris Corbin and Jeremy King, who have almost mythic status as restaurateurs, and rightly so. They are, after all, the team that at various times have been behind The Ivy, Le Caprice, J. Sheekey and The Wolseley but never Garfunkel’s, which is weird but, hey, if it ain’t broke why fix it? This newest opening is on Regent Street but not on the groovy bit. It’s on the sombre, shopless bit south of Piccadilly Circus, and on the ground floor of a block so dreary and anonymous I miss it several times. At one point I even end up in a different restaurant entirely. Is this St Alban? ‘No.’ You’re not St Alban? ‘No.’ Who are you then? ‘Divo.’ Not St Alban? ‘No.’ Are you sure? ‘Yes.’ Quite sure, because I have been up and down the street several times? ‘Yes. We are quite sure.’ This is how I knew I was in the wrong place. I am quick to catch on.
Anyway, I eventually locate St Alban — good tip: it’s opposite a branch of Rymans — and go in, as why wouldn’t I, after all the trouble I’ve had finding it? That would be insane. Inside, it’s OK, but a bit disappointingly NCP-ish via a BA transit lounge and some kind of corporate headquarters. The room is low and dim, the lights are recessed, and the seating is all luridly coloured banquettes. It isn’t sexy or glossy or any of the things I’d expected but, wow, the toilets are almost shockingly wonderful. They’re all metal-studded and shiny and each has an automatic flush such that as soon as you stand up, whoosh, it’s off. It’s hours of fun — up, down, up, down — or would have been, but I have two friends with me and after a while one knocks at the door and says, ‘We think you can stop playing with the flush now.’ I am trying to train my toilet at home — ‘Flush, you bastard, flush’ — but it still doesn’t get it. My toilet is not as quick to catch on as me.
Of course, one of the things you absolutely expect from any Corbin and King establishment is spot-on service; the kind that makes you feel loved and adored, as if all any of the staff have ever lived for is this very moment when you — yes, you, with the special-needs toilet and the rubbish coat from Matalan and the handbag that’s more mustn’t-have than must — chose to walk in and spend your good money here rather than anywhere else. And, at first, it is very like this. A very nice lady takes our coats. The maître d’ sympathises with our inability to find the place, ‘but now you know where we are, we hope you will keep coming back.’ Our waiter escorts us to a table where he provides water, delicious breads, a silky dipping olive oil, and beautifully fresh Puglia olives the size of limes.
All fine so far, but the menu? A bit of a hotchpotch. OK, not a hotchpotch, but it’s not an Ivy menu or a Wolseley menu, which I guess I was hoping for in some way. The thing I love about The Ivy and love about The Wolseley is that they do completely familiar dishes but to perfection: the perfect Caesar salad; the perfect hamburger; the perfect eggs Benedict; the perfect shepherd’s pie; the perfect lemon meringue pie. Nothing’s fancy-pants or comes in towers or is unpronounceable. However, here the menu is a bit Italian, a bit Spanish, a bit Portuguese, and the ordinary punter — look how I project any ignorance on to you; that’s how smart I am! — may be somewhat thrown by dishes like ‘octopus à la plancha’ and ‘baby chicken basquaise’ but not ‘grilled Cornish sardines’ which, I can tell you now, are sardines from Cornwall, grilled. I know my stuff.
We order our food and next, of course, it’s the wine list. God, I hate wine lists in a restaurant. Don’t get me wrong here. I love alcohol. I mean, I’d suck the alcohol up from my deodorant, given the right straw, but do I really need reminding every time I go to a nice restaurant that I haven’t the faintest idea what I’m doing? Why don’t they simply give me a trigonometry test along with the menu? The sommelier hovers. He wears specs and has floppy blond hair and is quite Andy Warhol-ish. Amazingly, considering what a coward I usually am, and how many expensive wines I have been coaxed into buying in the past, I put it to him straight. ‘Listen,’ I say, ‘there is no point guiding me towards the more expensive wines because I won’t appreciate them. I like to think I can tell the difference between a £3.99 and a £9.99 bottle but anything beyond that is lost on me so let’s not go there.’ He directs me to a Portuguese red which, at £19, is the second cheapest bottle on the menu, and which I would have ordered anyway, on the grounds that if you order the actual cheapest, you will look too cheap. He assures me this wine ‘is as good as many of the more expensive ones’, which is a lie, I’m sure, but it’s sweet of him to say so.
The food? OK, I start with the quail, pancetta and dandelion salad (£9.75). Was the quail pink and tender? What does dandelion taste like? Was the pancetta the real thing? Couldn’t tell you. The dressing is so sharp and mustardy all other flavours are extinguished. Again, don’t get me wrong. I love mustard. Life without mustard (or alcohol) would not be a life worth living. But the amount of mustard made my throat burn and eyes water. There is mustard and too much mustard and this is too much mustard. Next, I have the Sardinian fish stew (£18.25), which is fish-packed — mussels, clams, squid — but served in such a strong tomato sauce that’s all you get from it: tomato. This even got quite boring after a while so I abandoned it halfway through, which is almost unheard of for a greedy person like me. My friends do a little better. One has the sea bream, which she pronounces ‘lovely’, while the other has the wood-roasted grouse served with white polenta. This dish costs £29.50 and, for that, it should so do the business. My friend does not grumble about the grouse — pink, woody — but describes the polenta as ‘slop’. She adds: ‘I’d have much preferred plain mash.’ We finish with a quince tart and warm figs, both of which are so forgettable I’ve forgotten them.
Look, I’m not saying St Alban is bad, just that it is no more than OK which, when you consider its heritage, might be the same thing, actually. Even the service slipped on occasion. One friend (the one who doesn’t drink, strange person that she is) wanted sparkling water and had to ask for it three times. True, when it comes to crimes against the person, this is hardly up there, but as she later said: ‘It really pisses me off when they treat you as a second-class citizen just because you’re not drinking wine.’ Our final bill comes to £167, which is money I could have spent elsewhere, or on something else entirely, although I couldn’t say what. I am much too busy to think about that. ‘Flush, you bastard, flush . . .’
St Alban, 4–12 Regent Street, London SW1. Tel. 020 7499 8558.