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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Zetter's Restaurant Rooms

The day: 13th March 2008, Dinner
The place: 86-88 Clerkenwell Road, London EC1M 5RJ (020-7324 4455)
The venue: The Zetter Restaurant Rooms
The food: Fine Mediterranean Dining?? No
The drinks: Excellent wine list, very wide, well priced and good selection by the glass, too


Again in old London for a couple of days, we search feverishly for something sounding at least vaguely Italian to sample, and we land on Zetter’s restaurant rooms. It looks a bit expensive for the setting, but cheap bastards that we are, we scurry around the internet and we quickly find a 20% discount offer from Toptable, so we should manage within our £100 rule. So Zetter, here we come.
Well, hang on a sec, isn’t this that place we walked past several times, disliked at first sight, and swore never to go in? Mind you, it does not look ghastly, only one of those trendy looking places where you get the nauseous feeling that looks, ambience and fizz come way before food. Well, fear not, never judge by first impression… right?
The inside is, as noted, trendy, a beautiful bar on one side, a ‘look-me-inside’ kitchen on the other: surely they are confident about what they do at the stoves.
The tables are small, very small: lay out two A4 sheets (our usual unit of measurement), and you are done. The price per square inch is going to be high. The whole is graced by a white paper tablecloth (no pun intended), obviously they cannot afford cloth despite the fine dining prices. At least, the bread basket fits in.

One focaccia-like variety. The menu: starters go from the £5.50 of a Celeriac and pear soup with gorgonzola bruschetta to the £8.50 of e.g. crab salad with lemon-coriander dressing, avocado mousse and blood orange. Then there is a pasta and risotto selection of three dishes, the most expensive of which is a Linguine with seafood, chilli and tomato at £15.50, while mains go from the £15.50 of e.g. Grilled skate with saffron fennel, toasted almonds and caper vinaigrette, to the £17.50 of the Charcoal grilled English lamb with caponata and Greek yogurt.
Indeed, some of the dishes just mentioned all have a feeling of trying too hard (why would you want to put poor caponata with yogurt? Or avocado mousse and blood orange?), but anyhow we play relatively safe (at least so we think!) with the only other two primi besides the linguine already mentioned, namely:
- Taleggio and porcini tortelloni with tarragon and porcini butter (small, at £6.50; large portion available at £12)
- Prosciutto di Parma risotto with globe artichokes and mint (small, at £7, while the large version comes at £13)

With alarming speed, here they come. Try to imagine this: ‘speed’ and ‘risotto’, of course these words cannot go together, but here they did. Mondieu, it was overcooked, unbearably fat, overseasoned and crude. It was an ex risotto, a goner, a stiff. And what about any flavour from the artichokes? Something to try and put in the back of our mind as soon as possible.
Any better with the tortelloni? They really look horrible, don't they, immersed miserably in a fat-looking creamy puddle. Beside a little bit of dirt, which could even be excusable if the porcini were something to write home about… well, what are these? If it weren’t for the see through kitchen, one might have suspected that the dish had been quickly re-heated through a microwave. The sauce at the center of the dish had the temperature of a steel furnace, unlike the sauce at the margins. And there was plenty of sauce, an ominous reminder of previous experiences. To be sure, the flavour of Porcini was there, but this was all in the nose, the actual taste of mushrooms was negligible, all smothered by a triumph of butter: and who knows, there might have been taleggio there, but sure enough its taste was undetectable. The actual pasta: abominable for Man, Woman couldn’t fail to agree, with bits of it completely dry, others completely soggy. The thought of savage re-heating comes sneaking back…..
Ah, a charming waiter comes to collect our plates and… ‘hey, why did you not finish your sauce’? So, poor Man, by now tired of life and reproached like a naughty child and polite as ever, remains mouth agape and mumbles an imaginative reason (such as 'it was really very fat') for not scooping up the artery-threatening brownish buttery concoction on which the tortelloni floated. Now talk about adding insult to injury…
Never mind, though now we ARE worried about what is coming next:
-Saddle of rabbit wrapped in pancetta with olives and apple salad (£15.50);
- Roast monkfish with black olives, crispy polenta and lentil ragout (£17.50)

In fact, these were better than the primi. Not a big hurdle to pass, but still good news. The monkfish came in a nice and chunky piece, well cooked. The lentils were of apparent good quality, also well cooked, though definitely too salty. But all around… a lot of fat, and a salty tapenade of dried tomatoes: the whole very oily, very salty, poor monkfish, what a pity!
The rabbit, on the other hand, was thoroughly bland. At least, arteries can take a break! Apart from the julienne of (raw?) mangetout and the fact that it had been cooked properly, it would have been unmemorable, had it not been that it was the least bad performance of the evening so far. The comical and noticeable brown decoration was undetachable from the dish, irretrievably glued to it, so that we could not try it (maybe, we thought, the dishes are already produced by the factory with solidified balsamic vinegar, or whatever it was).
Now, how to close the dinner? Man: ‘Let’s share something’. Woman: ‘Come on, maybe they have a pastry chef? Man (looking stunned, again mouth agape, needs a second to recover): ‘PASTRY CHEF?!’ Woman (coming back to her senses): ‘I mean, let’s share something…’
So, in a damage limitation exercise, we go for:
- Dulce de leche crème brulee and banana split icecream at £5.50
What can we say, we have tried the real thing (Argentinian relatives, Uruguayan friends…), here there is a faint toffee flavour, to be fair the icecream with chocolate chips is not bad. Overall, probably the best dish of the evening. At least the trajectory is upwards.
With a 1 litre bottle of their own water at £2 (apparently, they have their own water source, so the description on the bottle tells us. Well, so do we in our kitchen…), and a bottle of (good) Delta Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007 at £26.60, AND the all important 20% off the total, our final bill came to £75.39. Which means that without the discount, and with another dessert, we would have verged on the £90 before service. In this place? For this food? With this service?
This is possibly somewhere to keep in mind for drinks (the wine list is good and well-priced) and conversation, and maybe nibble something on the side, but proper dinner, it ain’t. Although the raw material is in general good, this is food you have to eat at uncomfortable tables, prepared with a skill far below the ambition behind it, and served by staff that are more apt for a cheap student hangout than for a trendy (why?) and quite pricey London venue.

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