Posted on Thursday, 15th January 2009
This restaurant is no longer open.
I was reading today about a piece of artwork commissioned by the Czech Republic, the current holders of the EU presidency. The artwork was meant to go on display at the European Council building in Brussels to mark the beginning of the Czech presidency. Completed by David Cerny, a Czech artist, the finished piece of work – the ‘Entropa Installation’ – is a mosaic of each of the EU members and the ‘national symbols’ of each country. The result has caused Bulgaria to lodge a complaint as the work of art depicts Bulgaria as a series of squat toilets. France seemingly fared better as a nation of strikeaholics. And Britain? Well, it isn’t even included in this particular piece of work.
I am sometimes amused by what can actually constitute pieces of art. When I read about the Entropa Installation, I simply laughed out loud. That was amusing in a funny ha-ha kind of way. At the other end of the spectrum, art can be amusing in a puzzling sort of way when it doesn’t quite connect with my brain. If you’re anything like me, you might have on occasion ambulated around an art gallery and stared blankly (or in confusion) at one of the pieces of artwork, and asked of yourself that all perplexing question: “Is this art”?
And so it was that I posed a similarly phrased question to myself at dinner on Saturday: “Is this food or is this art?” As part of the artistically challenged, I thought I was merely going to dinner at a restaurant, albeit it a temporary one, but it turns out I was actually at an art exhibit known as Flash. Flash is a temporary restaurant that runs for 80 days, from 1 November 2008 to 19 January 2009, at The Royal Academy of Arts. Like its predecessor from two years before, the Christmas-y temporary pop-up restaurant, Reindeer, Flash is also brought to us by Pablo Flack and David Waddington, the gentlemen behind the French Restaurant and cabaret venue Bistrotheque in Bethnal Green in London’s east end.
This time round, Reindeer Mark II is more about arty exhibitionism than about venerating Christmas cheer, for it’s an installation which is one part of the art exhibition in the ‘GSK Contemporary Season’ at The Royal Academy of Arts. So back to my original question, is this food, or is this art? Initially, as I sat at my table, I was unsure. Confusion reigned. Debate raged in my mind. But in the end I concluded that as a temporary restaurant installation being exhibited at an art gallery, it must therefore be art. Get it?
Sure enough, most of our fellow guests looked like cutting-edge arty types. Add to the mix Paula Reed, style director of Grazia Magazine and judge on the TV show Project Catwalk, seated at the table next to us, and it seemed enough to seal the deal on Flash as a statement in popular culture.
The restaurant, converted from one of The Royal Academy of Arts’ exhibition rooms, has gorgeous high ceilings as befits a venue such as The Royal Academy of Arts. To transform the setting, wooden boxes had been placed the height and breadth of the walls all the way throughout the room. Initially I thought the boxes rather curious as a touch of décor, but as I later found out, the boxes were art storage crates which had been inverted. Thus what was once used to store art is now being used to exhibit the art. Get it?
To add that final touch of flash to the room, there is also a stunning Swarovski crystal chandelier, designed by fashion designer Giles Deacon. Gorgeous as it is, the chandelier seemed to me to conflict with the design of the rest of the room, given the rest of the room was merely lined with wooden boxes. But then, I am hardly an art connoisseur.
Arty or not, a girl has to eat, and what really mattered to me was the food. Here the food by Tom Collins, head chef of Bistrotheque was billed as ‘Modern French with an LA twist’. I started with a seared pigeon breast with beetroot puree, crispy pancetta and rocket (£8.50), which probably would have been a nicely seared piece of meat if it had been freshly cooked. The pigeon had lost some of its crispiness and it was so hot to the touch that it tasted of a pre-cooked dish which had been reheated.
With such an inauspicious start, I hesitantly turned my attention to a main of roast salmon, crab and creamed leeks, herb gnocchi and coriander shoots (£20). Unfortunately, whilst the pigeon was at least edible, the salmon was so bad I had to send it back. The fish was not fresh and tasted rank, and the creamed leeks so salty that it rounded off the inedibility of the dish. My friend’s main of roast duck breast, red cabbage and parsnip crisps (£19) was a tasty piece of breast, if you happen to like duck breast raw, or barely seared.
Trying to settle on an alternative main to the salmon I had sent back to the kitchen, I declined to order the raw duck or another fish dish (pollack or bream) for fear the other fish would not be fresh either. That left me two other meat alternatives. Fearing the Scottish cote de bouef at a hefty £29 might be undercooked, overcooked or simply not cooked, I settled on what seemed to be the safer option of a humble cheeseburger (£16). This was not exactly what I had come to dinner (or an art exhibition) for. To me burgers fall within the remit of burger joints such as Gourmet Burger Kitchen, but at least the cheeseburger turned out to be something I could actually eat.
A dessert of orange pannacotta, blood orange sorbet and polenta tuille was dull and uninspired; and a lemon trifle with almond cake and lemon granite was rather yummy, if only for the lovely fresh cream piled high. Otherwise, the cake in the trifle tasted stale and dry.
The service also proved trying. Whilst our food arrived promptly on time, requests for additional service were either not met due to lack of staff, or were occasionally ignored. But I suppose this might not be entirely unexpected. This is a temporary restaurant/exhibition after all, and there was always potentially going to be a lack of vested interest in seeing customers return.
But the evening was not a total washout. I might not get art, and I might not have enjoyed the food or the service, but the entertainment was thoroughly delightful. There was a round of pass the parcel for all the guests where top prize was a Wedgewood based teapot designed by illustrator Will Broome and which retails for £70. In fact all the crockery used during the evening had been designed by Will Broome. And then there was Spanky, the lip-syncing, all-dancing, cabaret transvestite performer who executed a number of brassy tunes throughout the evening. He’s part of the line-up at the cabaret nights held at Bistrotheque. He was great. Now he is a work of art.
23-27 Wadeson Street,
London, E2 9DR
Tel: +44 (0)20 8983 7900
Royal Academy of Arts at:
London, W1J 0BD
Tel: +44 (0)20 7300 8000