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Bryn Williams at Somerset House: Review

Reviewing restaurants is, for the most part, a fairly benign activity. Cossetted with soft furnishings (usually), waited on by obliging staff (unless you’re unlucky) and provided with food made with care and skill (at least that’s the idea), things will have to go pretty far off the rails to become genuinely unpleasant. Yes, you’ll have the odd car-crash meal, but in the grand scheme of things it’s not going to be a life-altering trauma. Not like, well, an actual car crash. No, the traumas of eating out are limited in scope and potential for damage – there’s only so much actual harm you can come to in somewhere with carpets and a cloakroom.

But that’s not to say that there aren’t still events that can occur in even the most salubrious restaurant environment that strike the fear of the almighty into any unsuspecting member of the public. One of these events – cold, dark, dreadful – occurred towards the end of a meal at Bryn Williams at Somerset House, and we’re afraid those of a nervous disposition may want to look away when the sordid details are revealed.

Don’t worry though – we’ll give you plenty of notice. First: happier times. The good news about this restaurant is that despite the strange layout this grand old building has forced upon the designers, they’ve made the absolute most of the awkward space and have created three equally comfortable rooms off a connecting corridor, all with nice high ceilings and pleasant muted colours. True, you’ll probably rather be sat in the larger final room, but you’ll never be out of the line of sight of front-of-house in any of them. It’s a nice space to sit in.

A stated philosophy of Bryn Williams at Somerset House is ‘vegetables first’, and indeed, at first glance their menu appears to be entirely vegetarian, with ‘heritage beetroot’, ‘compressed watermelon’, and ‘pickled radishes’ heading up the starters, and ‘roast young broccoli’, ‘kale pesto’ and ‘grilled leeks’ for mains. It’s not until you look closely that you realise that instead of going full veggie they’ve merely hidden the protein as the third or fourth ingredient, an affectation that will annoy vegetarians just as much as it annoyed us meat-eaters. Sorry, but the most important and noteworthy thing about a dish of ribeye steak and chips is not ’field mushroom, confit shallots’, no matter how much you may think they add to the overall aesthetic. Which, by the way, we think is ‘not very much’.

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Still, there were undoubtedly things worth ordering. Wild garlic soup had plenty of seasonal punch and a good balance of vegetable and dairy, and was a marvellous vibrant green. Cured salmon – sorry, ‘heritage beetroot’ with a bit of salmon to accompany it – was firm and fresh and salty in just the right amounts, and displaying the full rainbow of heritage beetroot colours. And a ‘salad’ of charred chicory and sour onions was a genuine revelation, charred from the grill and touched with a lovely smoked ricotta – exactly the kind of thing you may expect from a ‘vegetables first’ kitchen.

Elsewhere, we were on shakier ground. We don’t know whether the vast pile of mushrooms and tablespoon of pesto covering up a ribeye steak was an attempt to put ‘vegetables first’ or just displayed a lack of confidence in the ‘main’ ingredient, but the beef was chewy and bland, and could have done with a much more aggressive grilling. And we don’t know how long the red mullet (sorry, ‘roast young broccoli’) had been hanging around, but there was a noticeable crust on the olive tapenade and the fish itself, buried, in the same way as the steak, under a mound of different vegetables, was cold. But all that, vaguely disappointing though it undoubtedly was, was nothing in comparison to the horror that followed.

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Because it is our solemn and unpleasant duty to report, dear readers, that when you order the cheese course at Bryn Williams at Somerset House, the cheeses arrive stacked up on top of each other, touching, a practice so hideously misguided and disrespectful it borders on criminal. Surely we needn’t go into all the reasons why different cheeses, produced in different parts of the country and designed to be enjoyed on their own merits, shouldn’t be smashed together on a plate like cheesy Jenga and pitched into battle with each other but briefly, please, for the love of God, restaurants, do not do this. It just makes it look like you don’t give a damn.

So we’d like to say that we found enough to enjoy at Bryn Williams at Somerset House, but from the shonky mains to the deeply traumatic cheese presentation, the sad truth is that we just didn’t. There are better options in this part of town for about the same amount of money – even Skye Gyngell’s Spring is better, and that’s in the same building – and despite the pleasant dining room and attentive service, the experience left us as cold as those fillets of red mullet. It’s probably fair to say that had we not ordered the cheese, we would have just left disappointed rather than furious. But then, that’s hardly our fault, is it?

Bryn Williams at Somerset House, Strand, WC2R 1LA. Full details and opening hours.

Starters are around the £7–11 mark; mains £15–26. Expect to pay around £70 for a meal for two with a couple of drinks. 

Just Opened was invited to review Bryn Williams at Somerset House on a complimentary basis. We retain full editorial control.

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