I’m a big of a fan of The Restaurant Man. Like many a greedy girl or boy I have not so secret dreams of one day opening my own eatery. With Baby Bell #3 on his/her way in June it’s looking highly unlikely. I can’t see I’ll have the time or energy by the time the last rugrat is at school to open a restaurant. Or even a cafe. In my next life maybe.
So my dreams are lived out vicariously through those brave souls who open their restaurants with the help of Russell Norman , owner of the renowned Polpo, guiding their endeavours. He’s kind, firm, unflappable, clear and frankly a good blueprint for any trainee primary school teacher. I aspire to his zen like manner.
Imagine my excitement at lunching at The Ape & Bird, his latest opening, slap bang in the middle of the tourist hell that is Shaftsbury Avenue. I feel I can say this given I worked on Great Newport Street back in 2002 – 2003. I saw it all; the tourists knocked over by buses, girls screaming at night into their boyfriends faces for losing their theatre tickets, drunk city boys stumbling from China Town with vomit streaked jackets, folks from outside the M25 clutching maps and handbags – lost and afraid. It’s not my favourite part of London but it is on the cusp of Soho, which I am very much in love with, despite the prevalence of PVC wielding shops.
My good university pal Lucy booked us in, being a too cool for skool girl who works in film (She looks after the costumes of Brad, Ange and the like. I’m not kidding, she really does. Oh the stories she can tell! Of course I can’t repeat any of it. Sorry.) She knows about new openings, hem lengths, why bird tattoos will last the test of time, what’s hot etc. Now the Ape & Bird is right next to a Pizza Hut, so as we entered into the thing of beauty that is the main A & B bar, we glanced across at tired tourists eating their pizzas and felt a little smug. We were in the know. Oh yes.
We pushed through a red velour curtain that keeps out the cold of the street and the noise of the taxis into what can only be described as bar heaven. The curtain was indeed an adult version of the wardrobe that takes children to Narnia. The bar was brushed, polished copper, the window sills stuffed with fresh herbs in scratchy terracotta pots:
The tables were pure pub heritage fodder – dark wood, quite small but just right to ram in enough covers to be able to hear what other folk were chatting about. Embarrassingly, as an out of towner these days, I found myself gawping open mouthed at the ceiling, drinking in the attention to detail. (My husband designs pubs, hotel rooms and shops for a living, I just can’t help myself.) Look at this for a ceiling light:
The service is exactly what one might expect from Norman’s girls. For they were ALL female, those beautiful, skinny waitresses. It was efficient, smiley but dare I say it, delivered with a hint of insincerity. One waitress in particular was smiling so much I swear she’ll have had face ache come Sunday. But it didn’t matter given these girls were all ruthlessly efficient; nothing goes wrong on their watch. Bottled tap water was bestowed upon the table, drinks orders taken. And then the menu:
I do love a paper menu with a date printed on it. It matters not that the house menu may be seasonal rather than daily. I just like it. It makes me think everything is cleaned thoroughly every day – the menus binned along with the defunct lemon slices. I ordered the cheeseburger at £9:
Which came in a brioche bun, all the trimmings and was just a little bit pink in the middle. I ate it daintily with a knife and fork, what with not being alone and in front of the TV. My very cool friend ordered offal, for that’s what cool people do:
Her devilled kidneys on toast were a starter and priced at just £6. Now at this point myself and my teacher pal started to frown. Her starter was the same size as our mains. Here’s teachers sausage and mash at £12:
Now this is the type of thing that has the potential to annoy me. I know that’s very childish, but there it is. I like fairness. I like volume. I think a little more mash was required personally but then I am not boycotting carbs like I did in my London days. Maybe I am just out of touch. Luckily my cool pal had insisted we order sides including truffle cheesy chips:
Next time I’m just ordering a bucket of these to sit face down in. They really were that good. I may have eaten more than my fair third share. I’m into equality, but I am pregnant too. Principles can be bent when with child. We also ordered the cauliflower cheese. This is what was left of it by the time I’d remembered my camera:
It was delicious. Not too saucy, if that makes sense. The spring greens were also just as you’d want them to be; with a little crunch, well drained and barely seasoned.
Now I do have some bad news so I want you to brace yourselves. There were a couple of issues that were just not right. The first was my bannoffeebocker glory. At £7 it sounded both reasonable and very naughty. It was large I’ll give them that, but I didn’t finish it, and I finish almost everything. It just wasn’t sweet enough. And that’s from a girl who always picks crisps over chocolate. The cream that topped the banana and toffee concoction seemed to have been mixed with yoghurt. Either that of crème fraiche. It had a definite tang that wasn’t delicious at all in a bannoffee dessert. I hunted for sweet toffee sauce and bananas to mix into the cream but there simply wasn’t enough. I was disappointed. I should have complained but was so engrossed in conversation I just left it and ordered tea.
My other issue is a simple one. The Dijon mustard had scrapings of ketchup and burger in the pot. Such a simple thing but for a girl who can’t bear toasts crumbs in the butter it meant my burger went mustard-less. A crying shame.
So, the verdict? I would absolutely return. It was bright, it was airy, it had smiling waitresses who didn’t forget your order or seem to hate you (well not openly), it had good food, the bill was reasonable for central London and it had that all important Russell Norman calm. An oasis in the madness of theatre land. Just sort your mustard pot etiquette out and employ me as a pudding consultant and it’ll be damned near perfect Norman.