I know winter has arrived in London when the rain stops being daily and sporadic and starts being daily and never-ending. Last Friday night, we had one such winter rain, which of course wreaked havoc on all forms of transportation. Knowing we were running late, Jon and I called ahead to Arbutus to let them know, and the restaurant told us not to worry.
So imagine our surprise when we entered the warm glow and buzzy atmosphere of the restaurant and learned they’d given our table away! When we explained that we’d called to say we were late and were told it was OK, the maitre d’ accusingly asked whom we’d spoken to, at which point, his female colleague quietly piped in that she had, in fact, taken our call.
Happily, after that rocky start, things improved dramatically. We cooled our heels at the bar for 20 minutes, and that was fine because the best thing about Arbutus is how it makes almost every wine available by the carafe. It wasn’t exactly a hardship to start our evening with a carafe of a fragrant, refreshing 2004 Frederic Mochel pinot gris. I mean, it was so good that I actually remembered the name and vintage – all fruit and lightness without being sugary.
The restaurant’s decor has gotten a lot of flak in otherwise-glowing reviews, but I don’t see why. I thought the amber lighting was flattering, warm and welcoming, and I kind of liked the textured modern art on the walls.
Overall, Arbutus’s strengths are its high-quality food and excellent wine list by the carafe. The service is eh (e.g., our server described various cheeses in the cheese course by their colors and had no idea which ones were goat’s cheese vs cow’s cheese), but the prices are super reasonable for the quality of food.
Jon’s starter of braised pig’s head with potato puree and caramelized onions is Arbutus’s most written-about dish. Probably because it sounds a lot more exotic than it is (photo above). In fact, the slice of pig’s head tastes largely like any other lusciously-fatty, braised pork dish, except that it has a rich, creamy meatiness that reminded me of eating liver. Plus, it was kind of stinky. I can see its appeal, but I wouldn’t order it again. There are so many other parts of the pig I prefer!
My starter of porchetta and shaved pecorino was delicious. Sliced thin so it’s almost like carpaccio, the porchetta is a long way from the Saturday Tuscan market version. Here, it was deliciously fatty but still light-tasting. Eaten with Arbutus’s impossibly-crusty, delicious bread, the porchetta is the ultimate in charcuterie.
Jon’s bouillabaisse was a DIY. All the components (the crustaceans, the seafood broth, the creme fraiche) came served in gleaming copper pans, and although Jon relished the soup, I thought it was so-so. I don’t enjoy lukewarm soup, and the broth’s richness was overpowering.
My wild duck, however, was rare, rich and gamey. Just the way I like it. It was served with salsify and quince, both of which were sweet and tender, almost like a poached pear. And I assume the greens were also from the salsify plant, because they also had a slightly-sweet flavor, but I must admit to feeling a little thrown off by reading that salsify is a weed!
We ended our dinner with a cheese course, which you can construct yourself at £3 per cheese. The three we ordered were all rather blah on their own, but our carafe of Chateau Suduiraut sauternes made everything super. It emboldened the bland goat cheese (Ticklemore) and it toned down the over-intense blue cheese (Stichelton).
Our tab for two, which included three carafes of wine, was £115, and a nice final touch is that the restaurant adds £1 to all tabs to support Streetsmart, a charity that helps the homeless. (Writing this last sentence, by the way, just highlighted to me how little I do for charity. Food for thought).