Chris Corbin & Jeremy King are for good reason held in high regard in the London restaurant world. They are credited with bringing us Sheekey's, The Ivy, The Caprice. Their group, Rex Restaurant Associates, currently owns The Wolseley, The Delaunay and new kid: Brasserie Zedel. They have two further projects on the go, Colbert, a brasserie and The Beaumont, a hotel.
Anything strike you about that list? It's long. Five establishments and two men. Two men famed for being hands on, always around, keeping an eye on things making their guests feel special. Don't underestimate how much their guests want to feel special. They want the reassurance of people realising that they have managed to get one of the most-wanted tables in town. Even better if one of proprietors of these evergreen deluxe joints comes over to say hello.
So, how to maintain that level of intimacy and quality over five venus? Ah, well that assumes the plan is to maintain that intimacy and quality. Based on my lunch at Brasserie Zedel, it's not.
My impression is that Zedel is the restaurant in the Corbin and King stable that allows the masses to say "I've eaten there". It is I fear, a place for tourists and the bridge and tunnel brigade. I know I should be shot for using such a horribly snobby term, but it's true.
I've seen some reviews that have reported in some wonder at just how cheap it is. Barely £4 for some starters or main courses. The cynic in me says it's a reflection of a need for people to justify return visits and possibly, just possibly, lower quality ingredients.
Despite the aforementioned skill of Corbin and King in creating restaurants people want to eat in, I'm a bit ambivalent about their restaurants. I do not like The Wolseley. Over the past couple of years I have not had a decent meal there. The service is ok, but the food is poor. They seemed unable to poach an egg that was not either raw or had the consistency of a rubber ball.
However, I love The Delaunay. It consistently hits the right spot of good food, great service and a nice space.
One of the things that really struck me in Danny Meyer's book Setting the Table, was his obsession with hospitality. Meyer, founder of the Union Square Hospitality Group which owns New York stalwarts such as Gramercy Tavern and The Shake Shack, knows a thing or two about restaurants. And until Zedel, I would have said that Corbin and King were utterly focused on hospitality as well.
First off it's remarkable how impersonal the whole place is. As you walk in, there's this weird tiny cafe, with no one in it. Then to get to the main restaurant and bars you walk down and round and down and round without anyone or anything to confirm you're heading in the right direction.
You find your way to the dining room because of the din. It's enormous, with massively high ceilings and a vast cavernous space. And it's very very bright, weirdly so given how deep you are and also they're good at the lighting, as both The Delaunay and Wolseley testify.
The room is pretty gross. Not just in the German sense. There is a lot of marble (fake?), wood pannelling (from Ikea?) and gilding.
On to the meal. The menu is ok, but strikes me as odd that it is all in French, with some explanations in English. Stick to one language or another and given we're in the UK, let's make it English. What with almost cartoon-like vastness of the room, it feels like Disneyland.
After sitting down, it took about 25 minutes and a bit of handwaving to get attention to be served. I started with a herring salad and went on to have a grilled seabass. My spicy virgin mary was ordered but never arrived.
The herring was a good piece of fish, but it had been molested by a very oily potato salad. Herring is oily enough, it doesn't really need much in the way of oily accompaniments. I know that filets de hareng, pommes à l’huile is a classic, but this did not seem to be an effective execution. The potatoes added some starch, but not much flavour. Frankly a traditional potato salad, with a dash of mayo and lemon juice would have been a much better contrast to the already oily fish.
I'd been warned when ordering my seabass that it was a whole fish. Fine, happy with that I've no problem filleting it. What turns up is, as warned, a whole fish. As I go to work demonstrating my fine dexterity it's clear that it's already been filleted. I found it (perhaps unduly) disconcerting that this entire fish turns up, including head and a lopped off tail, but there's no skeleton. What was inside was some overcooked fennel. The fish itself was flaccid and lacked any taste. It may have been grilled, but the skin was soggy.
It was served with what they described as pilau rice. It seemed to me to be just ordinary white basmati rice. Fine but dull.
I ordered a side of tomato and shallot salad. The tomatoes looked pretty enough, lots of different hues and sizes, but lacked taste. It had none of the sweetness of tomatoes or slight kick of oil and vinegar that you get at say Sheekey's with their version. It was this dish more than any other that made me question the quality of the ingredients. I was reminded of those multi-coloured boxes of tomatoes you can get in any supermarket. They look good, but lack flavour.
In a state of some despondency I needed something to revivify me and so ordered an espresso. It was grim. It didn't look like an espresso, there was no crema and it had that horrible, over-extracted taste that I'd hoped had been banished from London restaurants.
I wonder whether Corbin and King are genuinely proud of Brasserie Zedel. I'm sure it will be a financial success, but that alone has never appeared to be their driving motivation. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for restaurants making money, they are businesses and need to make a profit. I'm well aware of the problems of profitablity at the top end. But this just felt so cynical and so much like the Corbin and King diffusion range.
Brasserie Zedel, 20 Sherwood Street, London, W1F 7ED, UK
Tel: +44 (0)20 7734 4888
What others think
Zoe Williams - It's vulgar to harp on about the money, but at these prices it's churlish to complain. The quality is solidly good, and the atmosphere swanky. Nevertheless, I feel that they're not giving themselves enough freedom. Even the slightest kink or experimentation would liven things up a bit.
Matthew Fort - Zedel is a dream of Parisian brasseries as they never were, bigger, grander, more theatrical, dare I say better.