January 09, 2009
RUMOUR HAS it that ‘The Wolseley’ turns over £10million a year. A few days ago I swapped £20 for breakfast. It takes that every minute. On the matter of money, this site spent 70 years as a Barclays, although it is better known for how it started - as a showroom for Wolseley cars. The upmarket British marque was founded, fin de siècle, by Herbert Austin, then manager of the Wolseley sheep shearing company. Where there’s wool, there’s a way (and here, a golden fleeced flock too).
The sharp design details of the original 1920’s commission still make a grand impression: chandeliers, chinoiserie and symmetrical brass staircases. Propped by dark, doric columns, the vaulted ceiling rises 30ft. The floor is a bold stracciatella marble web. This is a temple with tables: Venetian, Florentine and Viennese all at once, nipped, tucked and preened by the same designers who redefined nearby ‘Fortnum & Mason’. One of the first things I saw (or smelt) was the altar of homemade pastries, a celebration of saucy sounding ‘Viennoisserie’.
The minds behind are Jeremy Corbin and Chris King, the restaurateur double-act best known for rejuvenating ‘Le Caprice’ and ‘The Ivy’, amongst other hot spots designated safe for celebrities. When The Wolseley opened in ‘03, The Ivy’s imported doorman was the face greeting the glitterati…
The open plan seating encourages that curious sport of ‘see and be seen’. Our almost miniature, irritatingly low table was unfortunately sited, however. Being opposite the busy bar dispense, I was forced to follow the staff’s albeit intriguing complaints about a bad tempered customer. They are a diverse looking bunch, by the way, but broadly happy. Waitresses, from svelte to bulging at the belt, wear air hostess style cravats; supervisors are shoehorned into tight (and very tight) suits. Whilst most zigzag like pinballs, service can be sloppy: you, like I, may need to prompt for forgotten orders.
I doubt many make the pilgrimage for the plates. Despite the location’s link with tyres, The Wolseley will never turn the head of the homme Michelin. It seems that the stars shun stars, preferring comforting food rather then culinary couture. The sartorial equivalent of the menu (Salt Beef Sandwich, Leeks Vinaigrette) could be a tastefully worn, Saville suit (patched at the elbows). It might be worth pointing out that I once cancelled a booking at another Corbin and King venture, ‘St. Alban’ (Regent St.). I didn’t know the pedigree of the proprietors, and dare I say it, the menu looked dull at face value.
I cannot resent pastries. My tall, beeswax flavoured Cannelé Bordelaise looked like it had been jauntily shaped in a jelly mould. It came straight from the oven with a chewy, chocolate like crust and a centre which suggested dense panettone. Having made no masochistic New Year’s resolutions, I greedily rinsed this with ‘The Wolseley Imperial’ (bitter mandarin peel liqueur, cognac, double espresso, hot milk, chocolate powder layered with whipped cream). It tasted like a luxurious, liquidised Chocolate Orange. I chased this with a shot of fresh, bright, bitty orange juice.
To really set me up for the day I shunned the sordid sounding, lavishly priced Caviar Omelette (£52.50) in favour of a snug dish: Fried Haggis with conjoined Duck Eggs on fried toast. When burst, the large, molten, mustard coloured yokes stickily combined with the haggis. Moistly fatty, peppery, with notes of sweet spice in the finish, the pluck was minced into an earthy softness. A battered, highly burnished silver pot of lean Darjeeling cleansed with its gentle aromas of Muscat grapes. Feminine without that overwhelming aroma of, for example, Earl Grey, which for me is like drinking perfume.
My companion met ‘Arnold Bennett’ for the first time. An opulently creamy, Gruyère softened, smoked haddock studded eggy creation, named in honour of a long-term writer in residence at ‘The Savoy’. How ironic that his eponymous omelette outshines his novels. A transparent pot of what looked like a whole mint plant, including stalks, smelt brisk and brought colour to our table.
I rarely bother with a big breakfast. And half an hour after the fork hit the plate for the final time, I remembered why. Call it another type of morning sickness. As blood hurtled to my stomach to break down the early bombardment of artery addlingly rich food, a kind of fry-provoked nausea begun.
As the large station like clock passed 11:30, I spied the first frosty martini triangle take to a tray. Brightening linen landed on bare tables. Breakfast would become lunch, then tea and dinner until midnight. In excess of 1,000 famous, infamous and anonymous faces fed and watered.
Not content with having crafted several restaurants which are as much household names as their clientele, Corbin and King harbour seriously lofty ambitions. In October it was announced that they would be installing eateries over 13,000 square feet of the city’s unimaginatively titled, 288m tall ‘Pinnacle’ tower (under construction in the city). I prefer its nickname, the ‘Helter Skelter’. There is also speculation about a co-venture in New York with ‘Vanity Fair’ editor, Graydon Carter.
The original autos failed to sell. The Barclays bank transferred its funds elsewhere. But even amidst economic uncertainties, it becomes ever harder to book a space in Corbin and King’s Mayfair embassy of carefully cultivated café society.