Last Friday, we met a few friends in Covent Garden and we were brought to the opera-themed Sarastro Restaurant on Drury Lane. Words cannot express what the decor is in this place – imagine half pseudo-rococo, half Liberace’s home – those of you who have either been to or walked by this opera-themed restaurant will know what I’m talking about. For those of you who aren’t in London, here’s a photo:
And here’s another bizarre one:
I’ll be honest – I’ve always wanted to see what it was really like inside one of these flamboyant rooms. I could have had my pick of locations as there are two other restaurants with similar themes: Papageno (same owners) and Salieri. Upon entering, we were led to one of the upstairs booths that provide privacy and I guess is supposed to give one a feeling of exclusivity, like sitting in a real opera box. After settling in (which was a challenge as we had to contort ourselves to sit down at the table) and examining the bizarre tablecloth and napkins (crushed velvet!?), we were given menus and food immediately started arriving at the table. What was this? Glancing at our menus answered my questions – we had to choose from a three-course set menu. This was the first major bad sign of things to come. We were never told that we would be limited to this and nowhere on their website does it say this either.
I understand small menus – a small menu allows for the chef to have more control over the quality of the dishes and allows for your food to come quickly. At places like Sarrastro, though, this rather pricey set menu is obviously to cut costs and maximise profits. Appetizers were the cheap mass-produced kind: hummus, tzatziki, fried halloumi, cheese borek, fried calamari, dolmades. While the dips were presented in large-ish family-size bowls, the countable items were very stingily counted out to equal the number of people in our party. Never have I seen 6 sad calamari rings (count ’em, 6!) presented on a bed of lettuce. The cheese pastries and halloumi was almost inedibly salty but luckily the fluffy Turkish bread that accompanied all this was quite nice with the dips. Apologies for the rubbish quality of the photos – flash was required as the lights were low and cast a reddish tinge to everything.
When the waiter came to take our orders for the main course, I asked for his recommendation between the braised lamb shank and the duck a l’orange. After some hesitation, he suggested the lamb – but when the food came out, I saw that his recommendation really meant the lesser of the two evils. The lamb shank was enormous. The photo that I took doesn’t show how massive this dish was – I felt a bit like a cave-woman tackling this beast.
Unfortunately, quality and quantity cannot mutually exist in a dish at places like these. While the portion was huge, the lamb didn’t taste of much…just very dull lamb. The meat wasn’t exactly falling off the bone and there were dangerous shards of bone throughout my shank. The duck eaters fared no better – a limp, overly-gamy, and probably from frozen, sliced duck breast with a thin, translucent, and possibly bottled, orange sauce poured on top. One of our friends just couldn’t eat hers and asked for a replacement. To their credit, they quite happily switched it for the more edible salmon; to their discredit, the salmon arrived approximately 5 seconds after the duck was taken away. Hmmm…suspiciously quick… Accompanying our meals were family-sized bowls of boiled potatoes and boiled, yet undercooked, mixed vegetables.
The real kicker came at dessert time. The set menu proclaimed that we would receive Turkish sweets and a fresh fruit platter. Turkish sweets turned out to be a tiny syrup soaked sweet, not baklava but tulumba, for each of us (count ’em, 6!) and alongside lay some of the thinnest slices of pineapple the world has ever seen. The fruit platter was a large platter with whole, uncut, cheap fruits – apples, bananas, oranges, grapes…and the biggest joke of all, a whole pineapple in the centre, with no proper knives to cut any of them. Well, I was feeling slightly bitter by this time and proceeded to bag up that pineapple – we’re currently enjoying it at home!
And what did we pay for this catering-style meal? – £30 a head. Just looking at that number causes me to reminisce of the wonderful meals I’ve had at Le Vacherin that came to about that amount. And I haven’t even come to the musicians! Being an opera-themed restaurant, I would expect some music to be played. I do not, however, expect the band to sound like a mariachi band – nor do I expect the tambourinist to come around to each table, demanding money and shouting “Olé! Olé!”.
Take this as a warning! If the atmosphere is your thing, then perhaps you’ll be amused by this place, but do not go for the food! For me, the manic and surreal decor became tiring halfway through the meal and I will never go back!
126 Drury Lane
London WC2B 5QG