If expectations could be bottled, Roald Dahl style, then the ‘new’ Quaglino’s (re-née October ’14) would be purveyors of the premier or grand cru variety.

 

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Those of a certain vintage will be well-versed in the history of the Italian institution in London: its heyday as a cabaret venue in the ’20s, a haunt of Vile Bodies-era Evelyn Waugh, the first public restaurant ever to have been patronised by a reigning British monarch and, latterly, as a languidly dropped name in the evergreen British sitcom/movie Absolutely Fabulous. Quags’ latest incarnation as part of the D&D London group (Chelsea’s Bluebird; St James’s Avenue; Sauterelle and the Grand Café at the Royal Exchange) sees it resurrected as a lavishly assembled and touchingly nostalgic homage to its former glory.

This new Quags is far from corked, though. Abounding allusions to old world glamour, from its ambassadorial entrance to a centrepiece stage that plays host to crooners antiquating contemporary ballads, give it an atmosphere of liminal anachronism that is surprisingly alluring. It’s the sort of sensation that fans of Twin Peaks reference when discussing new Netflix mega-production Stranger Things; the sort of feeling one might have while watching Antony and Cleopatra in a luxury suite at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.

The walls at Quaglino’s drip with opulence. The front of house team ooze respectful bonhomie. The mixologists flutter around with inventive purpose. Waiting for our drinks at the bar feels like we’ve walked into a play staged entirely for our benefit – up until the point when the stage loosens its grip on us and we realise that we’ve been waiting a little longer than we’re used to for cocktails. By Jove, were they worth the wait: the Extravaganza is an explosion of fresh red chilli, Tanqueray gin, lime juice tinged with elderflower, a twist of rhubarb and a lasting kick of ginger. While my guest took her time with the caramel-laced Lady Godiva, I launched myself into Quaglino’s’ tip of the hat to the ladies who lunch: the Absolute-ley Fabulous, Darling is a cracking concoction of Absolut Elyx vodka, Strega herbal liqueur, fresh red peppers and basil. This is a pre-dinner (from 12 noon) or late night (until 1am or 3pm on Friday/Saturday) bar that won’t disappoint; Quaglino’s boasts a huge array of inebriations and an almost alchemical range of ingredients with which to enhance them.

 

 

And so, on to dinner. At 8pm, we’re early – Quags has offered ‘fashionably late’, European-style dining since its inception, and only shuts the restaurant at 11pm. As one sidles down the grand staircase leading from the mezzanine-esque bar down to the dining area, there’s a noticeable jostling between themes of public and private space. On the one hand, the open plan format of the dining-area-cum-dancefloor lends itself perfectly to the idea that Quaglino’s is a place to be seen (preferably via a Patsy-esque mosey down Bond Street). On the other, it’s difficult to tell how anyone can see anyone else in a room that somehow manages to be garishly gloomy and glaringly oppressive all at the same time. It’s a veritable paradise for the current celebrity fetish of shunning paparazzi before flooding the internet with suggestive nocturnal selfies. Even the lavatories are dark and dazzle-themed – a challenge for marksmen but an inspiration for Instagrammers.

Our starters were a familiar blend of ’80s classics and contemporary international cuisine. Quaglino’s prides itself on its seafood, so we opted for a crustacean trio to whet our appetites. The baked oysters, a signature dish riddled with nostalgia, were hearty fare: their robust texture married nicely with a fulsomely rich after-taste. Our sommelier paired them with a run-of-the-mill Sicilian Inzolia; an inspired choice that cut through the oysters’ warm chilli and tomato sauce.

The lobster salad, another ’80s staple, featured a bold Bois Boudran dressing and received a resounding thumbs up from my guest and I. Sadly my companion’s succulent-sounding scallop ceviche didn’t live up to the same standards. It was hopelessly bland – unforgivable for a dish that demands zesty seasoning to complement its melt-in-the-mouth raw texture.

 

Quaglino's devilled oysters

Quaglino’s signature devilled oysters

 

Somewhere in between feeling our way around the ever-darkening dining room for the loos and the always-amusing sight of a spoiled Slav trophy girl demanding serving staff to somehow remove the sauce from her pasta (the mind boggles), our mains arrived. We opted for the traditional heavy-hitting meaty mains, steak and grouse, so our wine expert (local to our table, not Quaglino’s head sommelier Bavand Foroughi) recommended a similarly safe Pinot Noir. Specifically a 2014 Domaine Jean-Marc Pillot Bourgogne Les Grandes Terres, which was well-balanced, if a little tart.

The fillet steak was a poor choice. Nondescript and slightly overdone (pinkish medium-rare as opposed to the rare red requested), it became abundantly clear why Quaglino’s is known for its seafood over and above its grilled meats. While true carnivores would have been disappointed, I chalked this up to a poor order and still cleaned the plate with the exceptional red wine sauce. By contrast, the grouse was excellent: the perfectly cooked breast coupled simply with a subtle bread sauce. The leg portion suffered slightly from a fate often faced by game, a lingering iron/metallic taste consistent with wild red meat, but that did not substantially detract from the overall flavour of the dish.

We loosened our belts for puddings, picking a praline caramel spear with hot chocolate sauce and the ubiquitous chocolate fondant with ice cream. Incredibly rich already, the chocolate smothered praline also arrived with a generous smattering of what looked like chocolate ball bearings. Recommended for unrepentant cocoa fiends. A reliable choice, the foundant was always likely to be good – and it was exactly that. True gourmands would mark it down as slightly bitter, lacking the subtlety and gooey moreishness one might expect from this timeless dessert, but it rounded off the meal perfectly.

quaglinos-chocolate-fondant

 

After supping down the rest of our dessert wines (an award-winning Rutherglen Muscat and a delicious Sauternes), we ambled up the Gone With the Wind staircase towards the door. “Was everything OK?” asked one member of the serving staff as we made our way out, a look of concern playing across her features (perhaps she had read some of the less flattering reviews from last year). I sincerely assured her that everything had been fine.

In fact, Quaglino’s played out like a luminary of the screen or stage reprising a famous familiar role. There’s a fine line to be drawn between reverence of the past and reinterpreting for the present and, for the most part, this Mayfair megastar treads the boards admirably – the occasional wobble balanced out by a contemporary flourish. With set menus starting from an extraordinarily low £20, it feels like the right time to rekindle Londoner’s love for this grand dame of the late night dining scene.

 

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For more information, please visit www.quaglinos-restaurant.co.uk

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