For the nine years since it opened, I’ve avoided Theo Randall at the InterContinental. Quite why I don’t know, but I had a sense it wasn’t for me, and then, over time, I just forgot about it, except for occasionally coming across coverage on television. It’s odd given my love of Italian food, The River Café, and the pretty much universal acceptance among chefs and critics that Randall is London’s king of pasta. But sometimes these things just happen. So after nine years, I found myself walking into the InterContinental and turning right into Theo Randall’s to be met by beaming faces and a cheerful “buon giorno”.
I’ll get to the food shortly, but first a word about the décor, because there appear to be some negative opinions of it. Such opinions held by the Michelin inspectors seem, from what one can work out, to be the sole reason they haven’t seen fit to adorn it with a star, despite the food being similar to what Randall produced for ten years as head chef at The River Café – first earning the star it maintains to this day. According to Michelin, “the food is somewhat at odds with the formal service and the corporate feel of the dining room”; this is, frankly, an unfair assessment, certainly on a Saturday evening. When it comes to The River Café, they praise the lack of formality with the simple food, so clearly it’s important for them that food and atmosphere match. Theo Randall’s dining room is white marble with light woods and turquoise leather and, while not informal, certainly isn’t corporate, and neither are the clientele. The only real problem with the room is that its one window looks onto the kitchen, so there is no natural light.
Despite being run along a formal hierarchy, service was friendly and relaxed, even if at first a bit all over the place, with wine coming before the aperitifs and just one drinks menu supplied for all six of us to peruse. A second was asked for, delivered, and then, thirty seconds later, another waiter came to take the order for said aperitifs. We clearly weren’t ready, so the waiter attempted to help by bringing us another six menus, so we suddenly had eight of the things! All this faffing about with multiple waiters led to the feeling they had just woken from a lengthy slumber, had been wound up and told to snap to it, and had then forgotten to check who was doing what. It would have been comical but for the inevitable and growing sense of despair, fomented in part by how much one knew the evening was going to cost. Thankfully, drinks came, food was ordered, and the flow of service settled.
Seasonal and clearly sourced from the best places across Italy and the rest of Europe (if the air mile footprint of your food is a deal breaker for you, then you will want to choose carefully), the menu is extensive and made up of simple, fresh Italian fare. This isn’t a surprise, of course, given Randall’s stated hatred of “formality and pretence”. I also note that his most personally adored restaurants worldwide include Al Pompiere in Verona, one which I too count amongst my favourites; it’s the best of Italian cooking with a great relaxed atmosphere, and far better than the two Michelin-starred restaurants in a five minutes’ walk radius nearby.
At Theo Randall’s the homemade focaccia and bruschetta, topped with the most beautiful cherry tomatoes, showed just how complex and stunning they can be, and proved the perfect opening for the the meal. Most of the table chose the cheese soufflé to start; served in one of those classic eighties oval dishes on spinach and then grilled, it was light, fluffy, subtle and not rich, and certainly nostalgic in the best of ways. Enjoyed by all, it perfectly represented all that Randall is about. The carpaccio of sea bass with rocket, tomato, and chilli was made of impeccable quality ingredients and was a sublime combination, but would have been better served with a little salt, and at room temperature (it was a little cold) to help draw out the flavours, and with less tomato but more chilli.
The pasta, of course, was the most anticipated part of the meal. Pappardelle con ragù di manzo may not be adventurous, but is always a good way of testing the quality of a kitchen’s pasta skills. The apparent simplicity of the sauce hides the myriad complex flavours required to make it great. The pappardelle itself was flawless and, while the sauce was faultless in quality, I would have preferred more of a hint of wine, and for the beef to have been less broken down – still luxuriously tender but more intact. Primavera was the table’s other choice. Again the quality of the pasta was unmistakable, but it wasn’t al dente and, while flavourful, the sauce was very liquid and buttery, with the pasta taking a bath in it. It may have been intentional, and some at the table liked it, but it wasn’t to everyone’s taste; the butter was too rich.
The pigeon from Anjou flapped its way to our table next, alongside the lamb. It was through the main course that the overall experience of the restaurant was best reflected – faultless in many ways and very enjoyable, and yet missing something. The lamb was cooked perfectly pink and it was a good dish; the disappointment came when, on subsequent discussion, it emerged that one serving had somewhat lacking, even missing vegetables. The pigeon with pancetta and on pagnotta bruschetta was a classic, with the saltiness of the pancetta combining perfectly with the garlic-fried pagnotta topped with rich, iron-packed liver. It did suffer because the bird seemed to have been standing for a little too long (something the lamb eaters also identified). The dish was also lacking in accompaniments; we all thought, mistakenly, it would have accompaniments which didn’t materialise on the plate – the online menu and images of the dish include peas. What it really needed was chicory, or something else bitter, like a radicchio salad. Spinach was the best they could do upon request.
Affogato – vanilla ice cream and chilled espresso – rounded off the meal and was a good palate cleanser, though more coffee would have been nice and without the frozen coffee in the ice cream – I found it reminded me of cheap ice cream that’s been in the freezer too long and now full of large ice crystals, which given the quality of the ice cream is of course not fair. The real shock was when an Old Fashioned was ordered by one of us to finish their meal and the waiter suggested the smoked grappa to go in it, something agreed to on condition it wouldn’t alter the price of the drink from the norm. Yet the altered price, twice the normal cost, appeared on the bill. Three bottles of wine and a cocktail each worked out as nearly half the total. This is, admittedly, a general observation of the industry – the alcohol was not really more expensive than at comparable restaurants – but for the majority of us not lucky enough to have the luxury of ignoring pricing, it does become frustrating.
Ultimately, all enjoyed the meal; however, as I look back, the experience left me confused. I’d go back for the quality and skill offered, compared to similar restaurants, both in price point and cuisine. But it wouldn’t be my first choice. The River Café still holds that spot. Incredible potential was let down by flaws, maybe unintentional, but too often left unnoticed. The consequence was that it just lacked that je ne c’est quoi.