The Langham’s second hotel bar in all but name
I review relatively few gastropubs, not because I have any objection to them but due to a pair of far more prosaic reasons. For starters, many of the most interesting new gastropubs seem to be opening outside of London. As as a typical rootless cosmopolitan elitist, I can’t drive and in any case I rarely travel outside of the capital specifically for the purpose of reviewing. Secondly, I don’t drink. Although it’s always fun to see if a gastropub can offer anything beyond a Diet Coke or a half-arsed Virgin Mary to satiate my thirst, booze is an even more important part of the gastropub experience compared to any other type of eatery. But, unless I can rustle up a few dining companions, I can’t tell you anything about the sauce.
All of that brings us to The Wigmore, a pub that sits on Regent Street of all places. You can indeed rock up for just a drink, a packet of crisps and a natter, all while admiring the vaulted green ceiling of the main room and the delightfully old school pattern-clash furnishings of the cosier back room.
But The Wigmore is more than just a pub. With the menu apparently designed by celebrity chef Michel Roux Jr, it’s also a cheaper, more accessible alternative to haute gastrotemple Roux at the Landau next door. It’s also effectively the second hotel bar for The Langham, with an option to charge the bill to your room’s tab, even though there isn’t a guests’ lift or entrance as far as I can tell.
With all of that in mind, it’s no surprise that the service is a well-oiled machine, warm and efficient. Beyond the somewhat contrived pattern-clash furnishings, the decor has a humane touch from the cutesy art to the plush banquettes and Art Nouveau-esque Tiffany-style lamps. The menu itself, however, isn’t the knockout work of art that I had hoped.
First things first
Buttered crumpets topped with steamed crab is the one of the most eye-catching entries on The Wigmore’s menu, but the reality is much more mundane than you would think. Miniature crumpets, or pikelets, were fluffy and squidgy. They came lightly buttered and topped with a small heap of somewhat sprightly crab meat. It was fine as appetisers/starters go, but it’s not nearly as decadent or as odd as your imagination would have you believe.
The spiky hedgehog-like appearance of the masala-spiced scotch egg is due to the use of vermicelli strands (or something similar such as sev) in the casing. It wasn’t quite as crispy as I would’ve preferred, but it’s still easily superior to the vast majority of breadcrumb-based scotch egg casings that I’ve tried. The small-ish egg not only meant that there wasn’t enough of the runny yolk to make much of an impact, it also meant that there was proportionately less sausage meat too. Most of the joy in this dish came from the sauces instead – the pitch-perfect creamy warmth of the tikka masala sauce and the sprightly zinginess of the mint raita-like dressing.
Slices of rye bread and an accompanying disc of butter would’ve been entirely unmemorable if it weren’t for the dense bread crusts’ raisin-y, almost Soreen-like taste.
The cauliflower kedgeree is the only vegetarian main on the menu at the time of writing which makes its pedestrian nature all the more disappointing. The timid and repetitive level of spicing to the cauliflower flakes was especially lame in the wake of the crowd-pleasing masala sauce accompanying the scotch egg. The sharp and gently sweet tomato relish, which was served on the side, added much needed character. Indeed, the tomato relish worked better when spooned on top of the cauliflower and firm basmati rice, rather than attempting to scoop it up with the crisp, puffy and musky fried flatbreads which proved to be an exercise in futility.
If the cauliflower kedgeree was a wound inflicted by hamfistedness, then the caramel pudding was the apologetic bandage. The eggy, custardy and creamy yet also surprisingly light pudding was perfectly complimented by the crisp raisins. Blessed with a musky sweetness and a gentle booziness, the raisins weren’t just a topping but an integral part of this dessert.
The Wigmore has a couple of slightly unusual lemonades for teetotallers like me. The grapefruit lemonade tasted vaguely lychee-ish, while the blackberry and rosemary did a good impersonation of cranberry juice. Only the ginger variant was a success and even then only a qualified one with the ginger presence a little too faint.
Going back for seconds
London may have an undeserved reputation as a rainy city, but a cold gust of rain is a perfect excuse of esconcing oneself in The Wigmore’s snug back room. Vaguely Levantine-like roast peppers are a good way of fooling yourself that it’s summer no matter what the weather is like, especially when their sweetness and sharpness was so adeptly enhanced by the musky sweet raisins, subtly herby olive oil and milky creme fraiche.
Whatever qualities the hake may once have had were buried underneath a pair of misjudged accompaniments. This was perversely impressive given that the small scab-like slices of chorizo only managed to be intermittently smoky and meaty at best. The hake took a further hammering from the crab bisque. While occasionally tinged with a hint of salty surf, it mostly tasted like an over-thickened tomato soup. When the most pleasing thing about a fish dish turns out to the garlicky wafers of bread dunked into the bisque, then something has gone very wrong indeed.
The Wigmore’s selection of heritage tomatoes wasn’t the best ever assembled, but it still had its charms and was also a welcome antidote to the amateurish hake. The tomato segments ranged from sweet to sharp and occasionally umami. Bits of milky, airy cheese and floral hints of herbiness in the lovage-flecked olive oil both helped the tomatoes punch well above their weight.
Smooth and refreshing soft serve ice cream also acted as a delivery mechanism for a combination of mead and honey. The two blended together so seamlessly that it proved difficult for this teetotal non-mead drinker to discern where the mead ended and the honey began. The musky sweetness of the duo had an earthy, floral undertone that was neatly offset by the sharp and sour gooseberries. Beautiful.
Battered and deep-fried olives were essentially miniature ovum-free versions of scotch eggs. The meat under the soft, occasionally crisp coating was allegedly veal but the characterless mush was such a waste of baby cow that I sincerely hope it wasn’t veal. The dusting of oregano, along with the salty and juicy olives themselves, were the most pleasing elements here.
The torta fritta wasn’t quite what I expected. While the fried bits of pizza-esque dough were soft and fluffy, just like their counterparts in Emilia-Romagna, they were elongated to breadstick length and pre-topped with mildly smoky and somewhat paprika-ish slices of salami. It wasn’t bad, even if it did come across as a late-night snack conjured from foraging in a poorly-stocked fridge.
Almost every pub and gastropub will have a burger on its menu and The Wigmore is no different. Although I would’ve preferred the patty to have been cooked medium-rare by default rather than medium/well-done, the gentle chewiness, smooth grind and meaty tang managed to shine through nonetheless. The caramelised sweetness of the shallots meshed well with the creaminess of the cheese, the subtle unctuous fattiness of ox tongue and the creaminess of the rose burger sauce. All of this did mean the bottom bun was prone to sogginess, but overall the burger held together surprisingly well. Although I would’ve preferred more focus on the patty itself rather than all the accoutrements, this was a surprisingly good burger nonetheless.
While the tautological ‘fat’ chips were reasonably crisp, they weren’t as superlatively crispy as Hawksmoor’s triple-cooked chips and were surprisingly airy on the inside. I presume the ‘Bloody Mary’ salt is supposed to be spicy and umami like the ideal of its namesake drink, but both qualities were fleeting here. These were respectable chips, nothing more.
I’ve never been hugely fussed about ye olde English trifles and The Wigmore’s version does little to sway me to the trifle cause. There’s nothing wrong with it – a light cream dotted with crunchy almond flakes sat atop a jammy sponge that occasionally tasted of sharp raspberries. But it’s all so apologetic and afraid to offend in its weak flavours.
Crisp ox-tongue potatoes arrived not as the chunky roasted tots or segments that I expected, but instead took the form of chips elongated to a length of almost a foot. Stuck to the side of each one was a bacon-like strip of ox-tongue. All of this oddness was for nothing though. With the exception of the deep umami of the anchovy sauce, these reed-like taters were little different to chips garnished with bacon. Just give me more of the anchovy sauce – it makes anything taste good, including this trying-too-hard mediocrity.
The small-ish ox-cheek pie was even less impressive. The pastry was unimpressive not only in its thinness, but also in its intermittent acridness – almost as if it had been burnt. It was made tolerable only by daubing the pastry in the accompanying brown sauce. The bovine chunks inside were tender, occasionally unctuous and bathed in a mildly tangy sauce. Even if the pastry wasn’t an abject embarrassment to the baking arts, opening a new eatery in London and serving a British pie that isn’t at least as good as the ones served at the Holborn Dining Room is faceslapping foolishness of the highest order.
Leaves of hispi cabbage were buttery, but not especially taut. If anything, these leaves were almost too buttery with a swimming pool of the stuff sloshing around at the bottom of the bowl.
The consistently bittersweet dark cocoa matter used in the chocolate and orange mousse made up for the initially strong then intermittent taste of orange. That wasn’t a huge loss as it was that peculiarly artificial yet recognisably orangey taste that you only ever get in chocolate and orange confections. Still, this light and wispy mousse was pleasing overall even if it wasn’t as superlative as some of the other desserts at The Wigmore.
The Virgin Mary was a little too watery and had only very modest hints of spice and umami present. There was a strident briney taste though, courtesy of the pickle plopped in place of celery. Although it won’t be to everyone’s taste, it fit my bill perfectly given my love of almost all things tart and sour.
Putting aside the fact that you can’t order at The Wigmore’s bar (seat yourself and wait to be served), the fact that this place really is a pub and is staffed with friendly, helpful people is something to celebrate. That goodwill only goes oh so far though. While there are some lip-smackingly good dishes at The Wigmore, most of these were confined to the starters and desserts in my experience. Whether you judge it as a gastropub or as a hotel restaurant, it’s only second best when compared to the likes of the nearby Berners Tavern and the somewhat farther flung Harwood Arms. The West End desperately needs more high-quality gastropubs and gastropubby eateries following the closure of the Newman Street Tavern and the Cornwall Project version of The Newman Arms. The West End is still waiting.
What to order: Roast peppers; Tomatoes and lovage; The burger; Caramel pudding; Soft serve ice cream with honey, mead and gooseberries
What to skip: Hake with chorizo in crab bisque; Ox-cheek and ale pie; Ox-tongue potatoes
Name: The Wigmore
Address: 15 Langham Place, Regent Street, London W1B 3DE
Phone: 020 7965 0198
Opening Hours: Monday-Wednesday 11.00 – midnight. Thursday-Saturday 11.00-01.00. Closed Sunday.
Reservations: not taken.
Average cost for one, including soft drinks: £35 approx. (£50 if you push the boat out)