Veneta is a Venetian restaurant inside the St James’s Market development south of Piccadilly Circus. I do not like this development because it has no identity and great cities should have identities. It is not like St James’s, and it is nothing like a market either. It is a cold and glassy spot with a stupid name, and it is, with other developments from here to Hyde Park Corner, the reason that people now hate London or do not recognise it as London, because it is beginning to resemble a giant Nespresso capsule. Someone once told me that in a million years the only evidence of our civilisation will be nappies and Nespresso capsules and I think this may be true, and future alien visitors will think we invented caffeine and babies and then blew ourselves up by mistake.
St James’s Market is, therefore, an excellent place for an expensive restaurant selling the cuisine of a dead city to a dying one, because it has no identity.
The building is stone and high, with a vast curve of window; it looks slightly like the mask of Iron Man, the most irritating of the Avengers because he describes himself as ‘a billionaire philanthropist’, and what gentleman would say that about himself? Or it looks like a building that is wearing sunglasses, while nodding at the other vast restaurant in St James’s Market, which is the Aquavit.
Inside, Veneta is rather beautiful. It is high and bright, with wood floors and things — I think decorators call them ‘accents’ — which are supposed to invoke the sea. The sea does get lost in Venice, even if it is the point of it. There is aquamarine-coloured glass and leather, a curling metal staircase and a gold-coloured bar. If this is Venice, it is no Venice that I have seen. It is too glib and subtle. Venice is rotting grandeur and insane camp. It is shockingly tasteless: every piece of glass made in Murano since the glass-blowers were moved there to stop them setting fire to the city, for instance, and the late Tintorettos in the Doge’s Palace, most of the wallpaper, all of the floors and everything painted by Tiepolo. This does not mean I do not love it all. Veneta, meanwhile, is more like a branch of Habitat. It is Venice tidied and made tasteful, and who needs that?
The food, though, is better than at most of the restaurants in Venice, although Veneta does have the advantage of not being a tourist destination that is also in the middle of the sea. The meal I last ate in Venice was at the Gritti Palace during a flood, but that is normal. The waiter served excellent lamb and let us stand on the boat deck during an electric thunderstorm while pretending he had not noticed that we were wearing bin bags on our legs. He thought we were mad: Gli inglesi!
Veneta cannot provide such drama. It is too calm and Venice, the serene one, is not calm at all because that was just an early piece of spin. (There is nothing calm about bankrolling the Crusades and governing an empire from the middle of the sea.) But it does serve an excellent pork chop, sticky with herb and fire; then a golden light broth with pasta and mushrooms that does every-thing mushrooms conceivably can do, which is not a lot; and a fine piece of pork, again sticky with skill; and as good a piece of focaccia bread as can be baked, heavy with salt and rosemary and as golden as the Madonna of Torcello.
But the St James’s Market development still looks like a Nespresso capsule with a Venetian restaurant inside. As a kitchen then, it succeeds. As a pastiche, it fails.