Based in the heart of Piccadilly Circus, The Criterion has been around for what feels like forever; it first opened its doors in 1874. It’s one of those old fashioned London “institutions” that I’ve always wanted to try but never got round to, so as my parents and I were in need of a pre-theatre dinner, I thought it would be the perfect chance to give it a go.
The dining room is undoubtedly impressive; it’s a grand affair with plenty to look at in every nook and cranny. Gold leaf this and marble that, you couldn’t help but be bowled over by the size and beauty of the place. But sadly, that’s where the charm ended for us.
The menu is not exactly cheap, but as we were in a hurry, we opted for the set menu priced at £25 for three courses.
To start, the ‘homemade gravlax, lemon mousse, rye bread, capers and pickled shallots’ was minuscule; more of a canapé than a starter. The flavour was pleasant but it was gone after two mouthfuls. The ‘beef fillet carpaccio, rocket and horseradish cream’ (£2 supplement) was equally as small; the portion size felt a bit miserly considering the additional charge.
The rib-eye steak with parsley butter (£5 supplement) was awfully thin for a rib-eye, but it was at least cooked to the requested medium rare. I never see the point of putting supplements on a set menu; surely the whole point of a set menu is value for money? This steak didn’t even come with chips.
The free-range chicken, leek and mushroom pie had lovely buttery pastry, but the filling was so incredibly salty that we actually questioned whether there’d been some kind of accident in the kitchen.
The pan fried Loch Duart salmon was a generous portion (at last) but lacked any kind of excitement; the beetroot and horseradish purée that lay beneath the salmon lacked flavour. The pork loin with potato purée, tenderstem broccoli and mustard sauce (£2 supplement – God knows why) also lacked pazzazz (is that how you spell it?); I could make that at home quite easily.
We were advised to order some sides, so we opted for the creamed spinach and sautée ratte potatoes (£4 each). We only really wanted one of each but our charmless waiter insisted (rather uncomfortably) on us having two. The spinach came lying in a pool of milky water which was quite unpleasant. It was also completely over seasoned. The ratte potatoes (whatever they are) were undercooked, and this time under seasoned, and lacked the crispy exterior that you might expect from being sautéed.
We weren’t exactly full, but we felt uninspired to order dessert, so paid our bill and buggered off. It’s worth pointing out that after a bottle of plonk and a drink in the bar area beforehand, the bill was astronomical – we left feeling like we’d been robbed. Considering the level of great cooking and friendly service available all over London – and bearing in mind you have Brasserie Zedel just round the corner – The Criterion seemed stuck in the dark ages. Yes, the room is grand, but the food is anything but.