Roma sells ancient-Roman-style food near Fenchurch Street station at the east end of the City, near Aldgate. It is, therefore, a themed restaurant in a conventional, ebbing financial district, a cursed place in need of Windolene; and this is something to applaud, at least theoretically, because it is ambitious. Who remembers ambition, which is more interesting than greed? The last themed restaurant to open in these parts was Fable, a repulsive fake library and fusion destination for lawyers on Holborn Viaduct which I hope has burnt down, or at least been sued for copyright infringement by-makers of fairy tales everywhere. It was as magical as date rape, and the fairies fled.
A Roman-themed restaurant could work here now, if you want to eat metaphor; the parallels are thick and easy. The Romans built an empire, then lost it because they were forgetful and corrupt, and they slunk out of history and into tourism. Roma, however, seems to lack the vigour — the blood — of those it wants to honour with its vampire food, which includes salami. It lives inside a modernist horror: a shining brown puddle from which nothing interesting will rise, beyond possibly an audit. They should have looked for a piece of Roman London to ruin. There is plenty about, if you look. The Temple of Mithras is in the basement at Bloomberg, like a Balrog in reverse; that is, the ancient evil was, in this case, upstairs on the executive floor.
So I was hoping for Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, or a scene from Mel Brooks’s History of the World Part 1. (‘See — Hitler on Ice!’). I sought something vivid; something vicious; somewhere to hide. Instead, at the bottom of a staircase, brown-and-white tiles sit by a grey, despairing carpet; it is the carpet from The Office; the carpet from a thousand offices, in fact, all sinking into London clay with shame.
Halfway up a handsome man asks for our reservation: an expensive restaurant, then, with a man on the stairs for guidance, as if we were all blind. Inside, it is half-decorated with busts and drawings of Roman buildings; it is a half-wrapped Roman gift from Paperchase. The booths are yellow velvet; the curtains are grey gauze; the windows, ludicrously, are picture windows, like the ones in the Green Park Kosher Hotel in Bournemouth, which is closed, so I cannot review it, although my grandparents were fond of it. (I never understood why — they were not kosher at home — but the mystery died with them.)
So Roma does not grope even for pastiche, which is disappointing; I suspect it is less like ancient Rome than Stringfellows, the chip-and-tit bar for inadequates to the west; I suspect, too, that City boys would not want to eat ancient Roman food in a lounge bar without naked women and snakes.
Roma is one month old and if it should have a Pantheon in cheese as a centrepiece, or a lion eating a Christian in pastry, it forgot to do it. Only five tables are filled, including ours, so it seethes with the anxiety of the unloved. This is distressing, because the food, for the City, is good and made with care; Roma deserves to live. (My last City review, of a Marco Pierre White body part, was a self-penned obituary.)
We eat salami, good bread, spicy bruschetta, hare and pistachio terrine, lamb rump, crispy pork belly.
I have no idea if this is what Marcus Claudius Marcellus and Postumus Agrippa ate, but I cannot imagine them eating it here, behind the Green Park Kosher Hotel’s picture windows, even if the menu does have a section called ‘cooked in hay’.
It is, then, an almost-parochial ancient Rome, a genuinely dated ancient Rome, and that makes it almost charming.