Somerset House, a handsome Georgian palace on the Thames, was once the office of the Inland Revenue, and the courtyard was a car park, but that particular hell is over. Instead there is Skate at Somerset House with Fortnum & Mason, which is a purple-lit skating rink next to a ‘pop-up’ shop or ‘Christmas arcade’. This, because all PR copywriters think they write for Jennifer’s Diary in 1952, is apparently ‘the most chic and complete Christmas experience in London this season’.
I doubt it. There is, for instance, no sign of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, Father Christmas, or rogue elves, although there is a ‘twinkling 40ft Christmas tree hand-picked from the Kielder Forest’. Of course I can only think — how big a hand do you need to pick a Christmas tree? There has been a lot in the newspapers recently about tattooed elves smoking and saying ‘Have a shit Christmas’ in various Christmas ‘blunderlands’ and not exercising what A calls elf-control; why exactly elves have to conform to the same societal mores as, say, the women of Saudi Arabia I know not, but there it is.
There is, however, a selection of fashionable nightclubs and ‘après-skate’ bars selling truffles and champagne and, for all I know, magic dust. Why is there no Santa at Somerset House, which is so complete a ‘Christmas experience’? This will become clear, children, as we wander deeper into the palace, past the skaters, who are photogenically falling over as if on a mass Richard Curtis-themed date, to the north-west.
And here, at the end of an expensively lit corridor, is the most preposterous restaurant to have opened in London this year, and so probably in the British Isles. It is more preposterous than Fera (‘wild’) at Claridge’s, to which it pays homage before vaulting over it towards madness; more preposterous even than the psychological torment posing as a restaurant that is called Beast. It is a testament, above all, to whimsy, and it is called Spring. I too can do whimsy when I am minded; Spring, therefore, is your Christmas restaurant review. One cannot do Winter Wonderland every year.
Spring comes from Skye Gyngell, the fairie chef responsible for Petersham Nurseries in Richmond-upon-Thames. This is the garden centre café which won a Michelin star. I cannot speak definitely of Petersham Nurseries since I have not been there, but I have heard tales of plant lovers fighting with divorcees over access to parking spaces; it was, I heard, cultural warfare of the most exciting kind. Gyngell herself was not particularly thrilled by her Michelin star — she has called it a ‘curse’ — and it is true Michelin changed the tablecloths-are-essential rule to reward her. Even so, she has left her garden and set up on the Strand; so this is a fairie chef given unlimited access to money. The result is a misogynist’s vision of the apocalypse; it is a scene from a novel that imagines what overpriced restaurants would be like in a civilisation run by women who like flowers and inter-pretative dancing.
First, a desk with fairie women in smocks. You probably do not know what a smock is; it is a garment designed to make the most slender woman look like an oatmeal–coloured space hopper. There is an internal fairie–lit garden, and a vast fairie–populated dining room, lit by what look like condoms filled with water, or perhaps haemorrhoids; a fairie is dancing on the menu. There are subtle pale sofas, subtle pale tiles; even the chairs are subtle. Too much subtlety cancels itself out and becomes something else: that is, pretension.
The food is overwrought fairie food, designed to appeal to people who want to eat ginger-flavoured meringues and boast about it. We have ravioli of onion squash with marjoram butter; deep-fried anchovies with slow-cooked chard and aioli; guinea fowl with tomato and beetroot puree, which looks as if it has been killed twice; grilled sirloin with onion squash, cavolo nero, borlotti and horseradish. I ask the hovering fairie waiter, idly: please may I have some chips on the side? I am old–fashioned like that; steak means chips. No I cannot, I am told, by fairie waiter and fairie manageress. They do not serve chips; but, if I really want some carbohydrate (their phrase — do I, do I?), they will bring me some artichokes. Pardon me? In what universe is an artichoke an adequate substitution for a chip? I would mind this misery less (who thinks of a meal as carbohydrate and protein?) but the same thing happened at Beast, and it is pure snobbery; at least at Beast, when I threatened to go to McDonald’s and return with some chips, they said they would bring me a plate and we would speak no more about it.
It is also, I sense, a contempt for the kind of people who like chips. Fairies don’t eat chips, you see, and nor do the women who dine in a monetised forever Spring; the smock, of course, is a boast. And this, I think, explains the exile of Father Christmas from the ‘complete Christmas experience’ at Somerset House. He is irrevocably fat; it is part of his myth. And since a fashionably thin Father Christmas would look weird — not at all like the haemorrhoid light fittings — it is best to forget him altogether. It would never happen at Rules, a whole restaurant that looks like Father Christmas, where this reviewer takes her Christmas dinner. I suggest Spectator readers do likewise. After this, I hate the fairies. And they hate me.
The hate is expressed chiefly by the artichokes; passive aggression is the fairie weapon of choice. They look like roasted goblin ears, and they are in-edible. The rest of the food is OK, but it does not merit the prices and the fairie gunk; and the puddings are revolting. Merry Christmas, Spectator readers.
Spring, New Wing, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 1LA, tel: 020 3011 0115.