Novikov is an immense two-storey restaurant in deepest Mayfair. It serves Asian on the ground floor and Italian in the vaults. This is not an austerity restaurant, or anything near; it is bigger than a Harvester and full of the glow of fortified money. There are actually people smoking outside in happy clumps. For some reason I think of a T’Pau gig.
This barn is the baby of the Russian restaurateur Arkady Novikov, ‘the Blini Baron’. He must like pretty girls because there are many of them employed here, in identical pink dresses, tossing their hair all over the place, as if they want to be free of it. And their legs! If I had legs like that I’d run around shouting, ‘Legs! Legs! I have legs!’ The Asian floor is dark and dank with an immense fruit market poised by the open kitchen, so it looks like a cross between a street in Tbilisi and Tramp. Downstairs, past a queue for a nightclub, and they say they don’t have my reservation, which I procured online. There is a Gold, yes, but that is a table for six. Perhaps it is a more fashionable cousin? I have a TV star cousin who was nominated for two daytime Emmys for a soap opera called Guiding Light but he is called Ricky Paull Goldin (the double l is not an error). I threaten to show them my reservation confirmation email, which is, in restaurant terms, a T42 tank. ‘I believe you!’ says the pink one, even though, in any case, I was wrong, and booked Asian. (Please don’t shoot!) So here I am, in a big, loud space, full of men, Italian food and people shouting. How to describe the decor? Munich beer-hall putsch meets Play School, I would say. There are cartoon trees painted on the walls; they look like the Tory Tree, but more robust.
Now a friend is joining me. I beg a pink woman to find her, in case she has been taken hostage by Asian fusion. Between two restaurants, a nightclub and the smokers, Novikov feels like the Marseilles train the day the Germans marched into Paris. There are people everywhere, engaged in the sort of helpless quests that may eventually end with a small piece of cheese. ‘No time!’ she shouts, standing still, tossing the hair. Eventually she appears: ‘They said your booking was up there.’ (Yes it was. Please don’t shoot.) My companion dashes through, looking as wracked as someone who has been to Omsk.
Up comes the waitress, perhaps to take our order, although the drinks have not arrived. ‘Can we move you?’ she asks. ‘We need the table.’ OK, I say. (I blow with the wind.) ‘Thank you!’ she screams and promises free drinks that never arrive. The pink ones are not really like waitresses. They are more like alcoholics; that is, they embrace pointless chaos. So we move and watch our old table remain mysteriously empty. I would like to tell you about the food, but we have been here an hour and we still haven’t got any. I think they are operating on a system of low expectations equals good results — bring us nothing, and we will be grateful for anything. We will eat ourselves, or queue.
Up comes a big fat man, who looks at us with the sad gaze of a Casanova. He is either an Italian or else an actor pretending to be an Italian. My companion says he looks like ‘Rocky Balboa when he got fat — or the cruise ship captain’. He throws down a Caprese salad and a plate of raw beef, which looks like engorged worms having fun, but tastes fine. Ragù and sardines are likewise excellent; the sugar course was good. The food is not a problem in Novikov but it is an aside. This restaurant is drama. It is for addicts.
Novikov, 50a Berkeley Street, London W1J 8HA, tel: 020 7399 4330.