The first time I ate at Quo Vadis, about 3 years ago, I ate spaghetti with lobster and then a steak and kidney pudding with a side of salsify, all washed down with a bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and it was magnificent. The room was full, the waiters glided around and everything ran like clockwork. The next time I ate razor clams followed by roast turbot with green sauce, all washed down with a bottle of Meursault, and it was magnificent once again. The only time I’ve ever enjoyed turbot with the skin on, and somehow they managed to get it all lovely and crisp. Half way through the maitre d’ showed a regular, a fat old bon viveur, to his table. He was dressed in a white jacket and had a nose so red and gouty that he could give Bubble-O-Bill a run for his money. Upon being shown his table he exclaimed in delight “the best seat in the house in the best house in town!” I half expected the entire room to quaff carouses and shout “hurrah!” in agreement, because that’s exactly what it was.
Quo Vadis used to be my template for the perfect restaurant. A great room with a polished floor, lead windows, comfy chairs, spanking white tablecloths and capacious wine glasses polished within an inch of their lives. And, oh my, the cutlery! It was the sexiest cutlery in the world – the plain old English handle design, with the most exquisite patina earned from years of faithful service. The menu was enormous – physically – a huge A3 thing promising basically anything you could possibly want, from omelettes to oysters, rabbit to razor claims, and it was all very simple cooking too, no dicking around with ingredients. Big menus are often the sign of a bad restaurant, but with a high turnover and simple preparations, it can work, as indeed it did here. (It was a bit like the menu at Le Cafe Anglais, which is basically where you have to go nowadays for a similar experience, although the room there is not quite as pretty and it’s all the way over in Bayswater, and it’s in a shopping mall). It was proper English (or Anglo-French to be fair) cooking, with finesse. And the best bit was that it was still a fun, cheerful place to go. Everyone seemed to be having a good time. It wasn’t a deathly dull veneration of the chef’s ego, the way some “fine dining” restaurants are, but it still had a sense of occasion to it.
Then something terrible happened. The Dean Street Townhouse opened up, and started doing the same sort of thing over the road (and still does, and does it very well). And because it was new and Londoners are fickle, everyone buggered off there. People literally crossed the road to avoid Quo Vadis.
And then something even more terrible happened – instead of declaring war on the Townhouse and outdoing it at its own game, Quo Vadis dumbed itself down. Big mistake. Out went the tablecloths, the fine glassware, the big menu. In came the wipeable tables, the one-size-fits-all glasses, the short, boring menu. Casual bistro, allegedly. Miserable cost cutting exercise, if you ask me. And it was crap – I took my parents last year and it was just plain dull, although the chips were good. “Chips were good.” Pretty depressing if that’s the best I can say.
And then earlier this year it got the life breathed back into it. Fresh coat of paint, tablecloths back, and a waaay better looking menu in the window. Still short, but this time expressly staking out its position as a purveyor of “proper English fayre”. And changing daily, a very good sign.
And it’s a massive improvement, although in short, I don’t think it has quite returned to its former glory. The food is perfectly good. Crab mayonnaise was entirely correct but without any brown meat, if you are a fan. Braised kid with peas was tender and slippery but perhaps without sufficient depth of flavour. Potato and nettle salad was particularly moreish.
But there’s something not quite right. I’m not entirely sure that the room matches its redone image. Think of all the flagship “English” restaurants in London – St John, the various Hix Restaurants, Great Queen Street, Brawn, and so on, amongst which I would now also count 10 Greek Street. They’re all menu-on-an-A4-sheet-whitewashed-walls-tea-towels-for-napkins kind of joints. When, as at Duck Soup, the menu is written in biro on the back of an envelope (or nearly enough), you half expect to be thrown a bowl of delicious tasting slop, and that’s basically what happens. When you get a small bowl of braise that looks like granny made it, in the milieu of sexy cutlery at Quo Vadis, a vague sense of disappointment overcomes you. Further Quo Vadis is very much a “starter, main course, pudding” sort of place, which is fine, but it’s serving the sort of sharey-platey food that you get at some other places, and you can’t help but feel a bit short changed eating that stuff without sharing. A case in point is that a couple of weeks ago the vegetarian and I shared, amongst other things, a whole roast head of garlic at Duck Soup, and it was great. But at Quo Vadis, that was his main course (“young garlic, cows curd, peas & olive crumb”). It was a tasty crostini looking thing with a whole head of garlic on the side. I’m told it was delicious but that’s not the sort of food one person could or should be eating on their own, at the risk of being cordoned off as a toxic miasma for the next several days.
In other departments things are mostly splendid – the wine list is long, good value, and interesting, and the puddings were unanimously complimented, although my lemon posset with quince, whilst faultless, was so tiny it could have been mistaken for the garnish on Chris’s man-sized almond tart. The coffee is terrible.
So I rank it as being in the shadow of its former glory but a huge, monumental improvement on what it has been for the past year or so. Quo Vadis? Well, quite.