‘…the young Whistler was accepted at the Royal Academy but disliked the regime there and was "sacked for incompetence".’
I SUPPOSE I should take some solace from the fact the experience cost me nothing financially. Away from the dining room, a conversation with a surprisingly obliging, thoughtful and apologetic manager remedied that.
But before I go on, I want to clarify something: a negative restaurant experience really irks me. A bad gut reaction leaves me upset and doubting for a couple of days. For butter or wurst, my greatest highs and deepest lows happen when I am armed with cutlery. I am, I suppose, a manic depressive of the dinner table.
I wanted ‘Rex Whistler’ to be sensational. It constituted part one of my girlfriend’s birthday present. A tour around the gallery highlights followed by a leisurely lunch. A literal cultural feast. The pinnacle of British summertime provisions lovingly plated...
As the hands on my watch married at midday, we were shown to our table, a small blank square tetrised somewhere near the back of the green, oppressively muralled basement (formerly the director’s boardroom). Neighbouring tables - which I prayed not to be filled - could be bridged by a menu.
Our server, like most of the staff, was tangled into a strange sizel coloured apron with the tag prominently exposed. Plenty of paperwork was dispensed. This included the famous wine list. Thorough and inquisitively devised, although slightly hard to navigate initially (with respect to the stiff dividers) it had perhaps the most reasonable prices I have seen in a venue aspiring to fine dining. This is, I was told, a result of the restaurant’s policy to cellar bottles itself. Of course hanging on too long can have drawbacks, hence our oxidised '98 Paso Robles Tablas Creek Marsanne/Roussanne/Viognier.
Rather then use tongs, we were encouraged to rummage around a bulky bread basket. I rescued a brioche rectangle. It tasted encouraging: freshly feathering like candyfloss.
After flutes of strictly measured Billecart Champagne, it was time for plated pain. From a dismal menu, I chose the Victorian classic, Devilled Kidneys. Matt regurgitations arrived, beached upon allegedly toasted sourdough. The stained tableau had the visual grace of an enthusiastically squeezed old colostomy bagpipe.
‘Fresh’ dry, attrociously overly buttery Leak and Pea Tart, garishly garnished with a pubic tangle of chlorine scented Mixed Cress appeared to have been bought in. It came - and left us - inexplicably cold.
Rather than ask if everything had gone okay, our waitress enquired if we had “got through it”. What admirable Bulldog spirit.
Within about two minutes of replacing cutlery, the main course incidents occurred. It soon became clear that this was a restaurant of two to three sittings (to compensate for the fact it is closed at night). My Rhug Estate Pork with Braeburn Relish and Buttered Carrots was lacklustre. Chefs sometimes machismatically describe their ‘death row meal’ in interviews. If by some twist of fate this became mine, execution might seem a suddenly attractive alternative. The belly was dehydrated: an insult to the organically reared Welsh pig which sacrificed Whistler its soul.
Close by a till beeped like a checkout scanner. Tinitus.
My girlfriend’s Suffolk Chicken Breast with Roasted Tomato Tart and dribble of anaemic Sweet Corn Velouté visually evoked a toad squatting on a cirrhotic liver. We tugged at the lethargically undercooked pasty pat of a base before deciding the plated profanity was fatally unappetising.
A side order of chips baked in dripping proved the chef’s apogee and simultaneously signalled his prospective career path.
On the next table, a lady looked astonished by her enormous coil of Loin of Smoked Bacon, a frankly libellous description, again served cool without warning.
For pudding, an acrid Gooseberry and Almond stack with Elderflower Sorbet looked like thumbs had shaped it. Perhaps an aspiring potter lurked behind the screens?
When I booked, I asked for a little touch to mark my girlfriend’s birthday. Quel surprise, nothing came: the birthday girl had to make do with a sodding, in parts splattered mural.
Despite generally good sourcing, when the kitchen has applied their particular whims, what lands is ungentrified pub food at posh prices, hectically served at a breakneck pace...
Rex Whistler - Tate Britain. SE1P 4RG. T. 020 8778 8825
Nearest Tube: Pimlico