Aye for pie with an eye for pie
One should never, ever underestimate the importance of how food looks. Attractive-looking food not only influences how we perceive its taste, but can get otherwise disinterested punters in through the door in the first place. This placebo-like effect can be seen in the social media hubbub surrounding Holborn Dining Room. This previously unremarked and unheralded restaurant has been given a new lease of life via Instagram and Twitter. Photos of chef Calum Franklin’s intricately extravagant pies and other pastry dishes have captured the imagination of people who follow London’s restaurant scene.
The uncritical devotion that Instagram has engendered around Holborn Dining Room obscures a few facts for the unobservant. For a start, this cavernous restaurant has an odd policy where large groups (defined as seven diners or more) will only be seated for dinner before 18.35 or after 21.00. When asked why, a written statement claimed this was to avoid ‘creating any delay at peak time on dinner services. Our kitchen capacity being limited by the size, can result in slowing pace of service, as it does take longer to dress a table of 12 than it would for a table of 4’.
That kinda makes sense, although I wonder if, by that rationale, they would avoid seating, for example, two separate groups of six at the same time. Suspect reasoning aside, the front of house service was scatty and inefficient on the weekday evening of our visit with the dining room approximately 3/4 full at its peak. It’s hard to say whether this was purely their own stumbling or also indicative of problems in the kitchen. Regardless, an unspoken group booking policy bluntly applied without flexibility or discretion is a poor substitute for a more thoroughly drilled front of house.
More importantly, the pies and other pastry dishes only make up a very small part of the menu – this hotel restaurant also has to cater to the lowest common denominator tastes of its guests. There’s not even a dedicated pie menu – a single solitary pie choice rotates onto the main menu every month. Even the sumptuous-looking beef wellington is only available on Wednesdays – and even then, you may have to pointedly and repeatedly ask the stuttering, error-prone staff if it’s available or not. Combined with the relatively high cost (£19 for a pie main course without sides), one has to wonder if it’s worth the bother or if it’s all just a social media mirage.
I decided to find out with the aid of The Lensman, Happy Buddha, Templeton Peck, Porn Master, Veal Smasher and Athlete’s Foot in a pie and pastry bender.
One permanent fixture of the menu is the rabbit and bacon en croute served at room temperature. The pastry was a thing of beauty – richly buttery and tightly packed, with not a single stray crumb going to waste. Quiveringly salty gelatine ringed a thick yet light and moist terrine of meat that tasted much like pork. Tart and lightly pickled slices of vegetables served on the side helped cut through all the richness.
Athlete’s Foot’s lobster thermidor tart wasn’t quite as superlative, but was nonetheless satisfying. The soft and fluffy filling took centre stage with its exceedingly buttery creaminess. Although the chunks of lobster studded throughout were a little too soft, the filling nonetheless had a strong bisque-like undertone that proved neatly complimentary to the bold butteriness.
The Scotch egg looked the part, but struggled to follow through on its alluring appearance. While far from bad, both Veal Smasher and The Lensman were left unconvinced by its apologetic crunch, muted meatiness and lack of both herby kick and runny yolk.
The pie of the month during our visit was filled with curried mutton. The tender meat inside was fine, but it was merely the supporting act for the pastry. It was truly impressive in its boldness and balance – rich, buttery and neither too thick nor too thin, neither too hard nor too soft. It would be a mistake to skimp on the curry sauce served on the side. It had the gentle warmth of a chip shop curry sauce, but with a touch more spice and a fruity mango sharpness that seemed out of place at first but quickly grew into a rhythm contrasting with the tender sinews of the mutton.
Templeton Peck thought that the pastry in the beef wellington was too buttery – especially after all the richness that had preceded it. I honestly couldn’t disagree more – life threatening quantities of weaponised butter help make pastry the beautiful thing that it is. If nothing else, the decadently luxuriant lactic lusciousness of the flaky pastry contrasted perfectly with the earthiness of the minced mushrooms directly adjacent to it. The meaty tang of the tender, medium rare fillet of beef at the centre of it all was beautiful in its quivering reddish pink glory. Superb.
The spinach and cabbage were fine, but ultimately forgettable sides. This was at least better than the roasted potatoes. Although golden on the outside and fluffy on the inside, the excessively chewy skin-like exteriors left a lot to be desired.
The best of our sides had to be the champ. This buttery mash flecked with sharp spring onions was one of the best versions of champ I’ve had so far.
After that much pastry and meat, Veal Smasher had to have a quiet moment by himself before he could dive into dessert. The pastry wasn’t the star of his lemon tart – that honour went to the filling. Its lightness and gentle zingy sharpness was reminiscent of a good lemon curd and was far superior to the lacklustre lemon tart fillings found elsewhere.
Happy Buddha’s rhubarb crumble wasn’t as well-crafted. He liked the fine-grained crumble topping, whereas I did not. The filling was very sharp – almost one-dimensionally so – and thus failed to capture the the subtle sweetness or yielding texture that, along with that characteristic sharpness, help make rhubarb one of the most distinctive if least appreciated crumble, tart and pie fillings.
If it isn’t obvious from the rest of Holborn Dining Room’s menu, don’t order the apple pie if you’re expecting the archetypal all-American version of this dessert classic. The version here was topped with a sugared, thin, lightly crunchy pastry. Underneath was a spiced apple and raisin combo that, while far from bad, was a bit too heavy and repetitive given the large portion size and oddly Christmassy too. The spiced warmth of both the fruit filling and the smooth cinnamon ice cream added much needed variety, while the latter also provided moist, supple refreshment.
If there’s one thing that’s not in doubt, it’s that the Holborn Dining Room and its pies are immensely eye pleasing. Although its polished and dark wood-pannelled décor is essentially that of a gussied-up brasserie, it was just sumptuous enough to trigger Templeton Peck’s nervous socialist tick and trick him into thinking that this is a much ‘fancier’ restaurant that it really is. The hesitant, error-prone and occasionally hard to pin down staff hardly provide the level of service I would expect in a restaurant at this price, charming chequered uniform trousers notwithstanding.
The all-conquering pies and other pastry goods are, for the most part, very good indeed. Even so, and rather inevitably, they can’t quite meet the unrealistic expectations engendered by the unsustainable social media hype. Neither can they quite justify their relatively high prices, but that’s a very close-run thing. Nevertheless, if you want to convince someone of the beauty of British pies and pastry, then the Holborn Dining Room is, without a doubt, the place to do it.
Name: Holborn Dining Room
Address: Rosewood Hotel, 252 High Holborn, London WC1V 7EN
Phone: 020 3747 8633
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday 07.00-23.30, Sunday 07.00-22.30.
Reservations: highly recommended the closer you get to the weekend.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks: £70 approx.