I've never been much of a fan of Sir Terence Conran's. Like many self-loathing members of the petit bourgeoisie, my taste runs to the ostentatiously aristocratic and the aggressively proletarian, without much interest in the stuff in between. I'm almost as happy to dine in my local greasy spoon as I am at the Ivy, but the idea of going to a Conran restaurant gives me the heeby jeebies. They're the culinary equivalent of a Julian Barnes novel.
One of Sir Terence's missions in life, along with converting the masses to modernism, has been to popularise regional French cooking, starting with the Orrery in 1954. Since then, he's been through four wives, several fortunes and a factory full of cigars. At last count, he owned 44 restaurants, bars, cafes, clubs and food stores, with his latest venture being the Almeida in Islington. As an expression of everything he stands for, it couldn't be more fully realised. It might as well be called "the Terry".
To give the Almeida its due, both the food and the service are excellent. I went there with my friend Taffy, a barrister, and we were fortunate enough to be waited on by Rodolphe Bertin, the Restaurant Association's Young Chef of the Year. He recommended we try the charcuterie trolley and we feasted on a selection of pates and cured meats. The jellied ham was particularly good, with the duck rillettes coming in a close second. We followed up with the Chateaubriand for two which was just about as perfect as it could be. All in all, a very satisfying French meal.
Atmospherically, the Almeida wasn't nearly so rewarding. Admittedly, we arrived at about 10.30pm, having been to the theatre beforehand, but given that it's opposite the Islington theatre of the same name I was expecting more than half a dozen of the 85 seats to be occupied. It's a big, open-plan restaurant with a very high ceiling and the lack of customers made it seem very empty indeed. What could explain this absence when nearly every shoe box on Upper Street, Islington's main thoroughfare, is packed to the rafters at this time of night?
The answer's simple: it's wildly overpriced. The dishes themselves aren't unreasonable, but if you want any vegetables with your meal you have to pay extra. Taffy and I had chips, green beans and spinach with our beef which bumped the bill up by £9.50. When you add the cost of four glasses of wine, a bottle of mineral water and one pudding, the total came to £106.26. If Conran's hoping to convert the local residents of the People's Republic of Islington to the delights of bourgeois French food, he's going to have to charge a lot less than £50 a head. You might as well open a branch of Nobu in Shepherd's Bush.
An effort has been made to redress this problem in the form of a tapas bar which has recently been opened in a box-like room to the right of the bar. All dishes cost somewhere between £2 and £3, with some reasonably priced wines available by the glass. But given how many bone fide tapas places there are in the neighbourhood it seems unlikely that anyone will come to an expensive French restaurant to seek it out. Needless to say, it was empty on the night I went there.
How can Sir Terence justify the wildly inflated prices at Almeida when he claims to be on a mission to democratise good taste? I was reminded of an afternoon I once spent with an American woman going round the Bluebird, Conran's food emporium on the King's Road, dutifully noting down all the prices. I had bet her £100 that Bluebird was the most expensive grocery store in the world and we were going to compare the prices with Dean & Deluca in New York. I won.
Don't misunderstand me. The food at Almeida is very good and the next time I'm at the theatre opposite I might well go there again. But as a business venture it seems hopelessly misconceived. I'd be amazed if it's still there in five years time.