Restaurant review: Master & Servant, London

Date:06-06-2013 07:58:07 read:0

Restaurant review: Master & Servant, London

This trendy Hoxton restaurant may not have the staying power of the Depeche Mode song it is named for.

'Exposed brickwork walls and a cocktail bar in the basement do not a happening Manhattan eaterie make': Matthew Norman on Master & Servant Photo: Martin Pope

If you had an uncontainable urge to name your new restaurant after an Eighties synth-pop hit, which would it be? No doubt you too have privately wrestled with this conundrum for years, and for therapeutic purposes it demands a public airing today.

After anguished reflection, I have settled on Mad World by Tears For Fears, partly as a commentary on the inherently deranged nature of human existence, but also for the cheering effect on punters’ spirits of the line: “And the dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had”. An initial temptation to go for OMD’s Enola Gay was slaked by the concerns of imaginary financial backers that a restaurant named after the B29 Superfortress that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima might deter the market in Japanese diners.

For Matt Edwards, a former record company executive who went into the trade after reaching a MasterChef final, the field was narrowed by a passion for Depeche Mode. If that means nothing to you, whether for reasons of age, youth or plain lack of high culture, know that they are widely regarded as the greatest synth band ever. That is clearly a subjective judgment, but it is a matter of objective fact that they had a top 10 hit with a track about sadomasochism way back in 1984, when Madonna, lyrically at least, was still being touched for the very first time.

God alone knows what the censorious Radio 1 DJ Mike Read was doing at the time, but he let himself down the week that Master and Servant made it on to the Radio 1 playlist. Almost three decades later, Edwards’s Master  &  Servant, in tiresomely trendy Hoxton, already has a longevity edge over Read’s Oscar Wilde musical – a milestone it achieved when it opened for a second night of business. Whether it will have the staying power of Depeche Mode, still going strong after 32 years, is another matter. The early omens are not propitious.

Pungent: smoked shoulder of Middle White pork, with coleslaw dotted with gherkins (Pic: Martin Pope)

The first problem is that the restaurant’s outré name (and the song to which it refers, with its whip-crack sound effects and lyrics such as “You treat me like a dog/Get me down on my knees”) creates certain expectations which are not fulfilled in reality. Disappointment was inevitable on finding the waitresses (though utterly enchanting), clad not in gimp masks and high-end corsetry, but in sedate black dresses. What Edwards wishes to synthesise here is not a pleasure palace of the kind once patronised by Frank Bough, but a happening Manhattan eaterie, and the simulation is not impressive. Exposed brickwork walls, a couple of abstracts, a bank of slanted, panelled mirrors and a cocktail bar in the basement (I wish I could call it the dungeon) do not a happening Manhattan eaterie make. What you need for that, as much as anything, is a lavish space. This one is weeny, the tables squashed together.

Brilliant food to match the great service and music (no DM, but lashings of Talking Heads and Blondie) would have overcome the limitations of a faddy, slightly clinical decor. But despite clear signs of promise in the work of chef Luke Cleghorn, who, like the owner, is an alumnus of Fergus Henderson at St John, there was precious little of that on a chilly evening that led my friend to underscore his Hoxton-cool credentials by asking for the front door to be shut, and then for a blanket.

Smoked olives and almonds gave way to two starters that were longer on ambition than precision. “Back fat & radishes”, one dish among several with a deafeningly St John ring, was a road to nowhere. The almost translucent fat was oddly tasteless, with none of the savour of the Tuscan pig fat classic lardo, while wrapped as it was around large radishes it hinted more at a smutty condom gag than a serious piece of cooking.

A fish soup was rich and intense, and grew on my friend spoon by spoon, but a combo of too-al-dente asparagus, an undersalted and slightly greasy sheet of chicken skin and a soft-boiled hen’s egg would not have worked even had the execution been flawless.

Sugar rush: Master & Servant's chocolate éclair (Pic: Martin Pope)

“This strikes me as the invention of someone who is not naturally inventive,” was the verdict. “It reminds me of when I taught English, and tried to explain to my students the difference between originality and novelty.”

The main courses were less mannered, and all the better for that. My friend liked his hogget (a sort of halfway house between spring lamb and mutton) for the depth of flavour, though he found it far too fatty. The same went for my smoked shoulder of Middle White pork, with pungent coleslaw dotted with gherkins. The meat was sweet, tender and flaky, and the barbecue marinade delicious, but the damage to the heart doesn’t bear contemplation. A grey, drab portion of chips was charmingly replaced with a crispy, golden batch.

While doing little to unclog the arteries, a custard-filled chocolate éclair was fine, as was a sharp lemon posset with a spiced biscuit. This cook has some talent but, for now at least, he is a servant to fashion. Some things, as a blast of Blondie’s Heart of Glass reminded us, never date. This restaurant, though still in its infancy, already feels a touch passé.

Master & Servant, 8-9 Hoxton Sq, London N1 6NU (020 7729 4626) Three courses with wine and coffee: about £50 per head

    Ever For Health Copy Rights 2013