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Restaurant review: Serge et Le Phoque

It may reside within an achingly fashion-forward hotel, but this new London opening — a spin-off of the Michelin-starred Hong Kong original — is certainly not a case of style over substance

By Tracey MacLeod
Published 27 Apr 2018, 20:00 BST, Updated 14 Jul 2021, 12:40 BST
Pigeon with arroz negro, black pudding and prawns

Pigeon with arroz negro, black pudding and prawns

Photograph by Per-Anders Jörgensen

In an age when adventurous Londoners are packing into stripped-back restaurants squeezed into converted shipping containers and repurposed garages, the idea of dining in a smart 'design hotel' seems faintly retro. Who wants to eat in a place where the tables are better dressed than you are? True to form, everything about The Mandrake Hotel, newly arrived in Fitzrovia, shouts 'this isn't for the likes of you', from the capering ostrich in the window to the doorman guarding a dark tunnel that transports visitors into an oasis of phantasmagorical opulence.

Yet, while it's decidedly aimed at the human equivalent of that scaly-limbed ostrich, the Mandrake's catwalk-ready staff are warm and welcoming, even to normals. Until recently, this building housed the TV company that makes The Apprentice. Now the boardroom is a sultry bar, and the office cubicles upstairs have become top-dollar suites for the internationally fabulous. Eclectic art abounds, triffid-like plants bloom in every corner, and it's all so very modern — even the loos are gender-fluid.

The bars and lobby may be fantastical, but the restaurant at the hotel's heart, Serge et le Phoque, is cool, sober and appealing. Established by French restaurateurs Charles Pelletier and Frédéric Peneau, its roots lie in the Parisian bistronomy movement, via a Michelin-starred Hong Kong sister restaurant of the same name. There's a confidence and clarity about the food that marks it out from the usual short-attention-span gimmickry of the international boutique hotel.

The style is modern French, taken on a global tour and served up with pop-art boldness. A meal might start with ceviche shots, compressing all the sour-sharp fun of Peru's national dish into two bracing mouthfuls; then an haute-couture reboot of the classic French onion soup, or a Scandi-minded warm salad, lushly combining skate, potatoes, capers and toasted bread in good olive oil.

Mains are as groomed and plucked as a model's eyebrow. In a dish that captures the kitchen's entente cordiale between British ingredients and French technique, pigeon is partnered with braised endive and black pudding, and heaped with samphire. Garnet-rare lamb chums up beautifully with smoked eel, a shiver of harissa and gloriously butter-rich pomme purée.

There are simpler dishes for the easily-startled — at lunch, a whole Dover sole, served on the bone with a side of steamed new potatoes is the kind of thing you don't expect to encounter on a menu that flirts skittishly with ingredients like yuzu kosho and aji amarillo. Our shiny young neighbours resort to Google: "What's grouse?" "It's a bird."

The signature dessert, the dacquoise — a moreish confection of meringue, nuts and cream, already has its own fanbase in Hong Kong. Order that, and not the rum baba, which — instead of the expected deep dive into rich, slippery booziness — fobs you off with a rather virtuous mango and passion fruit coulis. It's comfort food for the carb-averse.

By day, the restaurant is a low-key hideaway, albeit one frequented by men in Stetsons and leather-sleeved suits. At night, there's more of a Buddha Bar vibe, the clientele seemingly drawn in by the fabulousness rather than the food. It doesn't feel quite like being in London, rather some unmoored colony of Planet Fashion. But for all the attendant ridiculousness, Serge et le Phoque isn't ridiculously expensive, making it a good option for anyone seeking a shot of exotically plumed West End glamour. Lunch from £22 for two courses, three-course dinner for two around £150, including wine and service.

Follow @Traceyamacleod

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