A review of the Ivy

A review from the Times from December 2007, in its way the opposite of the Real Meals concept from the New Statesman:

There are London restaurants where having a well-known name secures you a table at short notice – and then there’s the Ivy. The Ivy plights its troth on being wedded to notoriety. It’s the kind of restaurant that, if it could, would tear itself from its foundations and heave across town to squeeze into the Big Brother house, before happily having sex on camera with the Wolseley or Scott’s. If you’re bridge-and-tunnel folk – snob Manhattan-speak for suburbanites – then you haven’t a hope in hell of reserving a table at the Ivy unless you call weeks, if not months, in advance. But if they know who you are, you can be magically seated.

All of which is by way of conceding: they do know me at the Ivy. Not quite as well as AA Gill, who wrote its cookbook, but well enough. Well enough that when I called for a table recently, I was asked to confirm my identity because, apparently, there’s a comic impersonator who calls up and blags reservations by pretending to be me.

Actually, I feel like I’m pretending to be me when I’m at the Ivy. As Nietzsche observed: “When I see a so-called ‘great man’, I see someone who is aping their own ideal,” and at the Ivy, there’s usually some monkey business going on. The paps gather outside the theatre opposite, where The Mousetrap is now in its fiftysomethingth year, and act out their own little play: not a whodunnit, but a who-is-it?

Inside, the warm and woody interior cossets its clientele, while through the diamond-mullioned windows comes the lightning flash as an A- (or F-) lister enters the lobby beneath the snappers’ lenses. Famous people like to be around famous people because it’s cosy and pally. And sticking together gives the comforting delusion that it is they who are the herd, while the rubberneckers are actually rather fabulous and unique individuals.

This is a win-win game that the Ivy’s front-of-house staff play brilliantly. If you have a “name”, they remember it; they say it’s nice to see you, they inquire after your wife, husband or even dead pet gerbil. They are the supernannies of the celeb circuit, and command salaries that reflect this. It’s rumoured that the doorman at Scott’s takes home about £80,000. I see nothing odd about this: getting moguls, models and mafiosi, and even muggins here, to feel good about ourselves is something a posh shrink would murder to be able to achieve.

Since I was last at the Ivy, the restaurant seems to have significantly upped its game. When I ate there in April, the food was substandard and I saw a mouse dart across the stairs to the gents. But unless the offending beastie could prove it was escaping from the theatre opposite, there’s no way its presence could be deemed acceptable.

Still, that was nothing compared to the dozen oysters I once ordered in the Ivy, which came complete with their own lice. When I objected, the then head waiter had the nerve to try and persuade me that they were a sure indicator of freshness. But that was before Chris Corbin and Jeremy King flogged it – along with Le Caprice and J Sheekey – and moved on to pastures new.

The anxiety was always that the restaurant’s new proprietors, the soulless corporation that owns the Belgo chain, would never come up with homely touches like oyster lice – or, worse, that they would muck about with the time-honoured menu. The reason I like the Ivy quite so much is that, in keeping with its role as a nursery for the famous, it basically dishes up comfort food for adults.

This is not the gaff to go to if you want your palate to be stretched until it snaps back in your face. This is where you go when you’re hungover and tired and ulcerated: it’s the Rennie of contemporary cuisine. Shellfish, game, roasts, broths and chowders – this is what we pampered types expect at the Ivy. We want them cooked well, but without unnecessary frills: there’s only the tiniest drizzle of jus on the menu, and that comes with the roast poulet des Landes with dauphin potato (chicken and chips to you, squire).

I noticed few changes in this bill of basic fare since I’d last troubled to examine it. The caviar was still there, and the sautéed foie gras, too. A substitution for the chicken tikka masala seemed to be a Thai red curry, but otherwise, all was in order: pasta dishes, risottos, even hamburgers. Our waiter tried to sell us the fish of the day – a plaice fillet cooked in black-bean sauce with salsify – but that was way too adventurous for me and my companion who, by her own admission, had been utterly “trolleyed” the night before and was in a delicate state. So she – who, while a blonde, bears absolutely no other resemblance to Adrian Gill’s famous dining companion – opted for the beetroot salad with Ragstone goat’s cheese, while I had the sweetcorn chowder with cinnamon muffin, and a brace of West Mersea native oysters on the side, purely to catch up on the lice sitch.

The Bottle Blonde’s salad looked as if it had been put together in a Greek taverna circa 1973, but according to her, the competing flavours of sweet dressing and pungent cheese remained interesting throughout the munch. I ordered the chowder purely to see how “nursery” an Ivy dish could be. I wasn’t disappointed: this was the starter as geriatric dessert, a reassuring gloop with the consistency and sweetness of a vanilla frappucino. The cinnamon muffin really was a cinnamon muffin, and as for the oysters, there wasn’t a louse in sight – unless you count me.

Last year, I cried when I realised the grouse-shooting season was over and I hadn’t eaten enough. This year, I’m not going to make the same mistake. At the Ivy, good children can have their grouse taken off the bone. I pretended I’d been good and was rewarded with a perfectly cooked bird, accompanied by creamy mashed potato and a wad of spinach.

The Ivy’s wine list is the solid business you’d imagine, running all the way up from reds by the glass for a reasonable five quid to £235 bottles of vintage Krug, but I know nothing of this, not having had a drink for many moons now. My companion – for obvious reasons – was crying off as well. Frankly, she put on a pretty poor show altogether, not even making it through her salmon fishcake with sorrel sauce – “Too rich,” she moaned pitifully – and declining a dessert. I, meanwhile, managed to cram in a steamed chocolate and orange pudding, and downed a much-needed pot of verveine tea.

The Bottle Blonde tells me that Corbin and King have lured the celebs away from the Ivy, and on the night we were there, I didn’t recognise anybody. Not that this counts for much: I didn’t even realise who Kate Moss was when she introduced herself to me. The BB told me she’d run across Jimmy Nail, Jools Holland, Lucian Freud and Helena Bonham Carter at the Wolseley in recent weeks, although she neglected to say whether they were all eating together, which would be a sight worth seeing.

On the basis of our outing, which cost £112, inclusive of the extremely nurturing service, the Ivy has every right to grab back these luminaries – or, at any rate, someone who can do convincing impersonations of them.

The Ivy
1-5 West Street, WC2; 020 7836 4751. Lunch, Mon-Sat, noon-3pm; Sun, noon-3.30pm. Dinner, Mon-Sat, 5.30pm-midnight; Sun, 5.30pm-11.30pm