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Mixing it in Mayfair

Mayfair is one of those parts of London where the super-rich briefly rub shoulders with day-trippers. Despite the surface wealth, they’re having trouble filling the restaurants, so it’s worth keeping an eye out for deals and discounts.

In the Daily Telegraph, I found an offer for five courses at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze, for about 50 per cent of the going rate. It’s a big room with a well-staffed kitchen designed to crank out lots of little tasting plates, the restaurant’s specialty; presumably the business model falls if Gordon can’t put bums on banquettes and keep the kitchen assembly-line working. Our walk from Bond Street to Grosvenor Square coincided with a brief but apocalyptic downpour that had us arriving on the steps of Maze in a state of drenched disarray. I half expected the maître d to offer us a towel instead of a table, but we were ushered across the elegant, David Rockwell-designed room to a table overlooking the bar.

Weirdly, it was exactly the same table we were given when we visited two years previously. Maze was very fashionable when it opened a few years ago; executive chef Jason Atherton’s signature dish, a cleverly deconstructed BLT, was the toast (or mini croque-monsieur) of London and sister establishments opened in New York and Prague. Now, with Atherton out of the picture working on his own projects, will the concept of French fodder with Asian flavours retain its popularity?

The food is less fussy than you’ll find at a lot of the gastro-domes in this part of town, but the execution is clinical in its precision. The idea is to order four or five tasting-size plates. So instead of building multiple flavours onto a chef’s vanity dish, you get a succession of self-contained mini-meals. The menu can appear staid in places. A recommended first course of Dorstone goat’s cheese curd with marinated beetroot was lovely – my wife’s favourite – but you can’t move for goat’s cheese and beetroot these days. It’s in every bistro, quite a lot of pubs, every recipe book… which is strange as the only place you really see goats is at petting zoos… This however was the best of its breed, the yin-yang of earthy curd and sharp beet expertly judged.

Some of the dishes skirted the waist-land between comfort food and effete eats: Szechuan-spiced Suffolk pork belly was at first glance a trad rib-sticker, but with the playful addition of langoustine alongside a braised Cox apple and the inevitable micro-pile of kale. Similarly, a roasted poussin breast and confit leg was a refined Sunday roast in miniature, served with a tootsie little potato salad, spring onion and pancetta.

The only bum note was the beef cheek, boiled with cardamom and star anise. The resulting dish was, to me, a spongy compromise rather than a fusion of cuisines. Still, this dish, or a variant thereof, has been on the menu for some time, so someone must like it. Speaking of cheek, the wine list arrived in the form of an iPad, the novelty of which failed to distract me from the mark-up.

So to dessert, which was at first anti-climactic. Hoping for something clever, I ordered the apple and blackberry crumble, which arrived looking like something perfunctory from the freezer section. A creamy dome concealed a semi-frozen flavour bomb of fruit at its core. There was some frozen granita in there somewhere, but it lacked the finesse of the other courses.

After lunch, we ambled across the West End’s backstreets towards the evening’s entertainment, in Fitzrovia. We suburbanites have an unspoken distaste for central London, but if you’ve got the luxury of time the area behind Oxford Street is a seductive parade of exiled smokers, disposable shops and forbidden side-alleys. As long as you don’t have to actually rush to do anything, it’s pure entertainment.

Much later, with no time to be choosy, we ducked into a darkened, ancient pub somewhere off Russell Square, and ordered fish and chips for two. It arrived on our table 15 minutes later and was, on its own deep-fried terms, rather wonderful. The fish may or may not have been cooked from frozen, but the batter was crisp and the pollock inside was just right. The chips were cooked from frozen, which I prefer to the clever-clogs, oversized triple-cooked jobs you get in gastro-pubs. The meal was utterly disposable, but in the context of two hungry people with an hour before the last train home, it was, in its own vinegar-drenched way, a little slice of perfection.

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