Celebrity. Hype. Expectation. The unholy trinity of the restaurant world. When a US celeb chef, such as Wolfgang Puck (who, having found fame with A-list haunt Spago in Beverly Hills, became a US TV regular), arrives on our shores, it’s going to be marked with a hefty dose of hype. His new London restaurant, we learned, would be the sibling to a clutch of glamorous steakhouses in Beverly Hills, Las Vegas and Singapore. What’s more, the London outpost would be housed in a brand-new five-star Mayfair hotel called 45 Park Lane, just yards from The Dorchester. ‘Swankorama’, I thought. ‘This’ll be good.’
The reality, however, didn’t match up. On arrival, having been greeted by the obligatory high-cheekboned staff, it quickly became apparent they’d been chosen for looks over experience. After arriving on time, but then being kept waiting for 25 minutes, with baffling explanations (‘your table IS ready, but please can you wait a little longer?’), we were finally seated.
Surveying our surroundings, it was hard not to feel disappointed. Yes, there was an original Damien Hirst butterfly kaleidoscope painting (one of a dozen) hanging behind us, but despite being expensively decorated, this place lacks soul. A long, lean room, with acres of pale marble and soundproof floor-to-ceiling glass shielding diners from the Park Lane traffic outside, it felt more like an extension of the lobby, rather than a bona fide dining destination. In the background, ’70s soft rock music (Dire Straits, Santana) only heightened the sensation.
The painful waits continued. In spite of an army of front-of-house flunkies to wipe away crumbs, shake napkins, repeatedly change cutlery and deliver condiments, we had to assume things were less rosy behind the kitchen door. Starters arrived a full hour after we did: this was not going to be an express lunch.
We were placated, however, by an excellent basket of homemade breads and things started looking up. And up. Belying the experience thus far, the food was exceptional. Steakhouse classics were given the luxury treatment, with high-end ingredients and thoughtful presentation. Light and creamy (as is the American way), a shellfish salad was rendered as a tian of lobster and Dorset crab, while steak (one of only four choices at lunchtime), came perfectly cooked, with a ruby-red middle and flavour imparted by an expensive broiler.
But a simple £15 burger stole the show: made of succulent Black Angus beef layered with molten cheddar, a fat slice of ripe tomato and roasted red onions, it also came with fresh pickles, proper hand-cut French fries and four kinds of mustard. Factor in a tower of delicately crisp onion rings on the side, and this has to be one of the best burgers in town. Which makes it even more of a pity: the cooking here may be a cut above the rest, but the rest of the experience really needs sharpening up.