Tuesday, 29 June 2010

The Bathhouse restaurant review

Tucked away from the bustle of the City, the Bathhouse in Bishopsgate Churchyard is a hidden haunt harking back to Victorian London. Serving as a Turkish baths for stressed out city dwellers during the 19th century, it's now a quirky nightspot for those seeking an alternative to identikit establishments. Deceptively small on the outside, the venue is cavernous once you descend into its depths via a spiral staircase.

Wonderfully, it has kept many of its original features, from the blue Turkish tiles on the roof, to the marble bar, flanked by statues of Mary and Jesus. Owner Tava O'Halloran resurrected the listed building as a bar and entertainment space in May 2009, and for a year it has played host to all sorts of debauchery – burlesque and cabaret are regular fixtures on the Saturday 'Golden Birdcage' club night.

And now, during the week at least, the Bathhouse is buttoning up its waistcoat and donning a dinner jacket, as it takes on its third persona: a restaurant. I visited with my mum on a Monday night, a month after it launched, stopping at the bar for an apéritif before dinner. A tall, handsome Frenchman hands me an encyclopedia. The wine and cocktail lists are all cut and pasted into different dog-eared volumes - mine fell between boots & shoes and border collies. I bypass the Doris Gay, and opt for the Sailor's Demise, a delicious mix of Sailor Jerry rum and cloudy apple juice.

We soon move through the Ottoman arches to the opulent dining room. The ceiling is swagged with red velvet and birdcages are dotted among the tables. A woman tinkers with a grand piano in the corner, playing Viennese Waltzes. The only light in the room comes from the candles on the tables, all of which have almost burnt down to the wick. It's so dark I can barely read the wax-sealed menu, but the atmosphere is incredibly romantic. Small, cosy and dimly-lit, it's an ideal place to take a date you want to impress – a slice of hidden London; a secret subterranean beating heart.

My candle casts some light on the wall beside me, illuminating the curious wallpaper. Designed by O'Halloran, it has a skeleton motif – a nod to the churchyard dwelling perhaps? As it's a hot summer night, I go for the Gazpacho to start, while M has the breaded camembert with raspberry conserve. A gigantic bowl appears, and in it, a sea of green. Made with cucumber, creme fraiche, celery and mint, the soup is perfectly refreshing, but it isn't Gazpacho in the Spanish sense of the word, lacking the garlic and vinegar kick I so love about it. M's gooey camembert however, is a hit, and I find my fork making regular trips to her plate.

I give the gigantic soup a good go, and am already full by the time the main courses arrive - for me confit of middle white pork belly and cracking with a veal bone marrow risotto, and for M Cullen Skink, a Scottish dish made with smoked haddock and scallops served with a sourdough wedge. I match my dish with a Willowglen Semillon Sauvignon 2007. The bone marrow risotto is wonderfully al dente and well christened with white wine, but the pork belly gets the better of me and I resort to nibbling on the crackling. Juicy and tender, the pork is well cooked but the dish is of such Herculean proportions I barely advance past the risotto moat to the pork castle in the middle.

M's Cullen Skink is equally epic. The scallops are lovely and soft, but again, the sheer size of the dish is intimidating rather than enticing. The portions are almost too generous. Pudding - Eton Mess, is an amusing affair. Bereft of meringue, M and I engage in a game of 'hunt the strawberry' from our goblets of whipped cream.

The food at the Bathhouse seems to jar with the setting - it's too rustic, too unrefined. I hope these are teething problems. The clandestine venue is a reason to visit in itself, but the Bathhouse has to look beyond the velvet swagging and focus on the food, which, if mastered in the same way as the interiors, would make the place truly magnificent.

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