Spring

Restaurants , Contemporary European Charing Cross
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Chef Skye Gyngell's return to London, at Somerset House, brings us simple Italian cooking but at haute cuisine prices.

What kind of meal out can you expect for £160 for two in London? A glamorous or sumptuous setting, service smoother than a hand-buffed glass, and cooking that’s exemplary of its type. 

For location, Spring’s off to a good start. Somerset House is an eighteenth-century building on the Strand, once home of the British Admiralty, then the Inland Revenue HQ. The stunning courtyard is often used as a film set in period dramas. Spring doesn’t have much of a view, as a  white marble counter blocks the window. But the huge, high-ceilinged room is pretty in a pastel-hued, funked-up Edwardian way.

I arrived early and was seated in the ‘bar’ – really a corridor, where the staff swish past in uniforms that resemble surgical gowns. The effect is like waiting outside a  ward in ‘The English Patient’, but with a stiff drink instead of morphine to calm the nerves.  

Chef Skye Gyngell previously worked at Petersham Nurseries Café, which at the time held a Michelin star. There is no better example of how a gorgeous setting influences enjoyment of a meal. Petersham Nurseries is an idyll; it successfully blends the romantic notion of the Tuscan garden with antique Indian artefacts. In this setting, Skye Gyngell’s simple, Italian-inspired cooking hit the spot. But taken from these bucolic environs and put into the formality of a West End dining room, filled with power brokers who smell of money, not pretty posies, the rosy-cheeked country glow fades away. Rapacious pricing doesn’t help the nagging feeling that you’re about to be stung, studying a menu where most starters cost  £10-£15, and main courses £25-£30.

Puntarelle is a slightly bitter chicory that’s common in Rome but seldom seen here. Here the dandelion-like leaves are served with a variant on black olive tapenade, mint and goat’s curd cheese. It’s the River Café fantasy of cucina povera, at prices only the rich can afford. Carpaccio was better, the beef a little rough-cut, but well-flavoured and topped with shreds of raw artichoke and pecorino flakes.

Our main course choices would make excellent Fulham dinner party dishes: a fillet of turbot perfectly cooked to the centre, served with fresh porcini mushrooms, spinach for colour and contrast, and breadcrumbs mopping up rich bone marrow. Any home cook would be delighted to create this; here it costs £32.

The cheapest main course was the sole vegetarian option of roasted onion squash with green lentils, tomato, beetroot, leaves of cime de rapa (an Italian brassica) and an agresto dressing (a nutty sauce containing sour grape juice). Pudding was a simple slice of chocolate cake containing candied chestnuts and pear, with a scoop of crème fraîche on the side. It's worth noting that while the dishes look beautiful in the carefully-styled pictures of our photo shoot (above), the versions served during our anonymous review meal looked less picturesque and more hastily assembled.

Yet there’s much to commend Spring. It’s good to see fine Italian ingredients and the cuisine’s sometimes sour and bitter flavours being used, not excised. And the sommelier did an impressive job of matching wines by the glass to challenging flavours. But is it worth paying haute cuisine prices for cooking that’s essentially rustic, so reliant on assembly of ingredients? The captains of industry seemed to think so, judging by the cajoling for a table that we witnessed as we were leaving. Witnessing a self-important and powerful man used to getting his way being told ‘no’ by the young reservations clerk was the most heartwarming moment of our visit.

PS since the above review visit a set lunch menu has been added, from £25.50 for two courses, which makes Spring considerably more affordable.

Venue name: Spring
Contact:
Address: Somerset House, Lancaster Place
London
WC2R 1LA
Opening hours: Mon–Sat noon–2.30pm, 6–10.30pm; Sun noon–3pm
Transport: Tube: Temple; Charing Cross
Price: Meal for two with drinks and service: around £160. Set lunch £25.50 two courses, £29.50 three courses.
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Average User Rating

4 / 5

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Alexandra L
Tastemaker

As fresh & delightful as the cherry blossoms or cotton wool clouds that arrive each year with its namesake, Spring at Somerset House is quite possibly the loveliest place I have ever had the good fortune of dining. There have been grander, more opulent settings and menus whose offerings have bewildered, excited or even terrified me a little but Spring? Elegant, timeless and simply lovely.


Marshmallow pink sofas, caramel tinted & buttery soft leather seats, the lightest of duck egg hessian walls scattered with creamy petals, burnished copper vases and cloudy globe lights hanging from high ceilings all make for a setting that is at once dreamy & modern; I swooned over everything I saw. Plainly dressed staff upon entry were reminiscent of the pages of Kinfolk while waiters had more than a touch of Jean Paul Gaultier's sailors to their attire; all were friendly & attentive but never obsequious and the sommelier was especially helpful with wine suggestions that paired well with the food but stayed within budget without judgement. 


Get there early and have a cocktail in the salon first; an Old Fashioned was deemed excellent by a man well versed in them while a frosty glass of 'Once Upon a Thyme' combining elderflower cordial, Prosecco, Chase vodka, lemon juice and thyme syrup was every bit as elegant as you imagine it would be. Off the beautifully seasonal and refreshingly brief menu, figs were burstingly ripe & sweet, anchovies were packed full of salty flavour and the deep fried courgettes in hollandaise that accompanied velvety soft steak have left me obsessing over them at home, on the way to work, basically any moment in which I'm awake. 


The dining room was full but at no point during our nearly three-hours-in-total sitting did we feel rushed, meaning there was plenty of time to linger over gorgeously dense chocolate cake with salted almond brittle and a perfectly balanced sweet but sharp plum & raspberry tart. Water tumblers & wine glasses were both kept unobtrusively & smoothly topped up until the last drops were sadly bid a fond farewell and I truly didn't want the evening, meal or experience to end.


Make no mistake, unless your wallet is full of fifties and your shoes are lined with diamonds, Spring is a restaurant for a special meal or a memorable occasion and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that; I fell in love from the moment I stepped inside and will be returning season after season.

Culina Sophia

The various light fittings remind one of frog spawn or aubergines or berries, and the origami petals arranged in gently dispersing circular dandelion drifts on the walls imbue the restaurant with a spirit of lightness.

The menu is not long and there were elements that required explanation.  Our waitress, who bore a striking resemblance to Toulouse Lautrec’s La Goulue – appropriately for someone working in a restaurant with its potential for gluttony – and a haughty self-importance to match, made us feel a bit reticent about asking too many questions.  She defrosted a little as the meal progressed.  

I’m not usually one to order fruit juice, but the pistachio and apple was too good a combination to pass up.  It was sublime too – freshly puréed apple with the warmth of roasted pistachios and just a hint of aniseed.  One retro rhubarb-striped glassful is simply not enough... Read more: http://www.culinasophia.com/2015/01/spring-somerset-house-restaurant-review/