In Plain Sight

In Plain Sight

I came to Hide hoping - no, expecting - to have a good time. Sure, I’d previously expressed my cynicism about the Dorsia-like hyper-moneyed surrealism of its nesting doll concept – Below and Ground and Above and a car lift for easy access to all three from the comfort of your four-wheeled midlife crisis. But I loved Dabbous, both the restaurant and the myth of the smouldering young chef who lent it his name; and I really quite liked what Dabbous (the man, now) was doing at the Henrietta hotel, however briefly. Heck, I even went to Barnyard and didn’t totally hate it, which is more than can be said for most. I really, truly came to Hide desperate to give it the benefit of the doubt – genuinely wanting, for London’s sake as well as my own, for it to live up to the hype and be worth every eye-bulging penny (or rouble) spent on the build and fit-out.

I also came explicitly to Hide Above. No offence to the Ground-feeders, but you exist purely to bolster the razor-thin margins of the operation on top of you – an ambitious tasting menu place being one of the most dependably voracious cash-bonfires a chef and his friendly Russian investor can ever ignite. I wanted to see what Ollie Dabbous could do in a space designed purely to his specification and with the freedom to cook whatever he wanted, without the need to worry about the lunchtime crowd or balancing books to the penny. It was a Friday night; we were a few minutes from the West End – I wanted theatre, pomp, drama. I wanted An Experience.

The space makes for a stunning first impression, no doubt about it. And that isn’t a sop to offset harsher words to come – it really is gorgeous. Ascending the ever-so-slightly H R Gigerish staircase into the serenity of the realm Above feels truly special; the summer light pouring through the windows illuminates tastefully expensive-looking wood and calm, neutral table settings. It’s the sort of start that fills you with quiet confidence, because you know if somewhere is working this hard to make you feel comfortable, it’s often a prelude to the cooking blowing the top of your head clean off.

Except here, it doesn’t. The much-Instagrammed plate of raw and pickled vegetables is Blue Hill At Stone Barns stunning to look at, but fairly uninspiring as an opening statement – there’s not enough punch and tang in the pickling to really get the saliva going; the dip alongside is unremarkable fancified Heinz salad cream. Chilled cucumber broth tastes like the flavoured water you get in posh gyms, and is again very pretty, but it’s instantly forgettable; the house-made charcuterie is OK (the goose in particular packs real flavour) but it’s hardly a stunning statement of confidence in your ability to rock people’s worlds.

Still, I’m willing to give this stuff the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps it’s a question of starting us off gently, resetting our palates so that when the fireworks come we’re reduced to dribbling, ecstatic wrecks.

It’s only with the next three courses that I really start to worry. The first is a parcel of celeriac containing avocado and (I think) apple over which a pine broth is poured; the second is a pyramid of thickly cubed bluefin tuna with wasabi and caviar. The flavours are precise (if tentative), the execution competent – there’s nothing *wrong*. But there isn’t much attention-grabbingly right, either; plus there’s something else, a nagging, insistent question that threatens to undermine the whole menu; a question that can no longer be ignored after course number three, the classic smoked-mushroom egg from the Dabbous days.

The question is: why? Why serve these ingredients, in these dishes, in this order? The sequence moves from chilled Nordic forest pondwater to Tokyo endangered-species luxe to mouth-coating, sinus-overwhelming fungal French smoke bomb; it's almost like three separate head chefs came up with three starters, saw they didn't really work together, but stuck them on there regardless. It is profoundly jarring. There’s no sense of progression or personality or connectedness; there’s no sense that anyone has any interest in thinking or saying anything meaningful or interesting at all. Looking at it more cynically, it’s just a shop window, an exhibition of different shit a kitchen can do, the tasting menu as to-do list. The goal, of course – as hubristically stated from the get-go – being two shiny Michelin stars.

The perils of this sort of monomania are evident from the fish and meat courses that follow. They are, formally, essentially identical to each other: tranche of protein (monkfish, duck) cooked to placid, underwhelming, watery perfection; a slightly tart garnish (pickled courgette, poached apricot); servers disgorging a conical Bibendum-dick jug in a pretty puddle around it. Both of them read appealingly enough, but there seems to be genuine reluctance to flirt with the vital and exciting – naked flames, liberal seasoning, heart-clogging fats, thrilling bursts of acidity – for fear that this sort of risk-taking might fail to pay off and end up displeasing the sad streak of piss who determines who gets what when the Red Guide comes out. To be fair, the duck isn’t bad – although the meat is nothing remarkable, the glossy sauce is delightful; there’s a cute, well-made bao of shredded leg alongside it, and a spring vegetable bone broth, too, if that’s your thing (it isn’t mine). But compared to the many-splendored beast prepared across town at Brat by another former enfant terrible of the London food scene the turbot is a wholly limp, insipid affair, the flesh uniform in texture to the point of tedium; the accompanying whisper-subtle nasturtium broth defanged of any of the leaf’s pep and bite.

Things improve, a little, from here. Sorrel-apple and sheep yoghurt “Garden ripple” ice cream is a fun, funny riff on that beloved ice cream van staple, the Twister lolly; Dabbous and co steer into the inherent absurdity of the Religieuse (a French pudding named after its visual similarity to a Pope’s hat), by dyeing their version’s icing blue with pea-flower and filling its choux pastry domes with jasmine crème pat. Among the petits fours, “gold leaf” is comprehensively meh, but a liquorice-stick marshmallow (toasted on the outside, cold in the middle) closes things off with a bit of wit and swagger.

Where was all of this earlier, and why isn’t there even more of it here? What happened to the brattish Young Turk who just a few years ago had the giganto-bollocks to serve a plate of mash and gravy in a Berghain-dingy industrial-chic dining room, and rewrite the London fine dining rule book in the process? How come he's now serving food this rootless, with presentation this tired and Michelin-star starchy?

It's not like there's a shortage of skill. It's just it's turned to such depressingly conservative ends; to dishes merely good enough, rather than transcendent. The duck bao is delicious, and in a parallel universe there's a Dabbous-like dish where you get a steamer full of them, and a plate of duck jus for dipping. Something fun, and a little bit messy, but satisfying in a deep, primal way. At this Hide, though, it's relegated to a side-piece; more technique for technique's sake.

It’s all too timid, tepid, safe, fine. It probably needs to be: you cannot risk alienating anyone – whether Mr Michelin or Mr Hedge Fund – when you have this much investment to return on. The spectre of chilling spreadsheet-English phrases like 'payback period' probably also explains why the wine guy feels more than a little pushy, and why prices – especially now, before the inevitable accolades – are on the farcical side of cheeky. 95 quid is a punchy-enough starting point, but add on supplements and that quickly climbs to £123 pre-service and booze; hook yourself up with a wine pairing – maybe the £295 Hedonistic, on which a glass of Hermitage Blanc still carries a supplement? – and you can be as far in the hole here as practically anywhere in London.

It’s not worth it – not yet. Not now, when practically every place in town worth its salt offers you an interesting succession of tasting-menu-sized bites. People roll their eyes at the Small Plates revolution, but the one unambiguously good thing that has come out of it is that it has democratised omakase-style eating; we are far more comfortable entrusting ourselves to kitchens, seeing what comes in what order, enjoying clash and contrast, moving beyond the confines of starter / main / dessert and towards something that looks much more like a multiple-course dégustation. If you’re going to charge so much for something like this, it’s got to cohere. It’s got to feel special.

Room aside, Hide doesn't. It will get a Michelin star (not two) at the first time of asking, no worries. But I feel genuine pity for anyone who thinks that for this restaurant, and this money, and this talent, that’s anywhere near good enough. This should be one of our shining lights, a temple of gastronomy to rival Bibendum, Hedone or St John. Instead, it just feels anonymous. Ollie Dabbous as we used to know him has upped and vanished; gone, too, is any trace of personality or fun. Given the investment involved and the swaggering arrogance of opening somewhere like this in the teeth of the worst restaurant market in years, I’d thought of joking that this place should really be called Bank. On reflection, though? “Hide” is perfect.