Christopher Jackson is beguiled by 34 Mayfair but wishes he hadn’t ordered the meatballs
On the day I attended 34 Mayfair – otherwise known as the Day of the Misguided Meatballs Order – I didn’t take an umbrella with me. That was my first mistake. I should have known better: it was one of those temperamental days where the weather indulges in intermittent tantrum.
Accordingly, I walked out of Bond Street tube only to be rained on with a kind of relish, as if Mayfair were gleefully proclaiming my unsuitability, and perhaps my Guildford origins. This was an unfortunate prelude to something I was looking forward to. The very name 34 Mayfair has a ring of centrality and class: it bequeaths a Wodehousian promise. It’s owned by Richard Caring’s Caprice Holdings – which also owns the Ivy, as well as Harry’s Bar, the Brasserie of Light and the J Sheekey franchise. These people know how to run restaurants. The place is just off Grosvenor Square – which even the Dukes of Westminster admit is an impressive aspect of their portfolio. Oscar Wilde also used to live here: his characters spend a disproportionate amount of time discussing it.
The entrance is on South Audley Street, a road reliably inhabited by billionaires. Inside one finds a plausible quality of décor: oak parquet, lighting intended to console the rained-upon for their wetness, and a colourful contemporary art collection.
My companion joined looking dryer than me; I went downstairs to dry my hair under a contraption more properly used for hands. When I returned, we scanned the menu. This is the work of head chef Harvey Ayliffe, who has compiled a selection centred around the presence in the open kitchen of an Argentine parrilla grill. Only the best meat is served here: pure heritage beef from cows who met unhappy ends in the Yorkshire dales and that caviar to the carnivore A5 Japanese Wagyu.
There’s also an excellent fish menu. This was proved by the first-rate ceviche of scallop, lobster bass and shrimp, served with starfruit and plantain crisps. It was like some sort of ocean reunion, and perfect with the ridged pleasures of the starfruit and the decisive crunch of the crisps.
By now we’d moved on from champagne to a pair of the place’s famous cocktails: an Abigail Adams – Bulleit bourbon infused with corn silk. My companion had the magnificently named Cato Street Conspiracy, based around Ancho Reyes liqueur. These taste different in retrospect than they did at the time: neither of us had any idea that I was moving towards the Catastrophe of the Ill-chosen Meatballs.
I had chosen to drink away my overall dampness. Perhaps it was this which in a restaurant noted for its steak, I ordered the meatballs, thus inaugurating the Episode of the Accidental Spaghetti Meatball Order.
I should say that meatballs have for me always held a peculiar fascination. I like them more than Wendy Cope would like to have another cigarette. They hold all the allure but none of the potential pain of a second referendum.
And yet – it was the wrong order. It was Ernest Hemingway who in The Moveable Feast came to the following conclusion about his failure to get through The Brothers Karamazov: it was my fault. When the meatballs came, I had a similar reaction: the meat was slightly Tesco ready-meal-ish and the sauce lacked flavour. Meanwhile my companion’s seared yellowfin tuna was a little on the dry side and not entirely redeemed by the delicious freekah and chilli yoghurt with which it came.
I recall a Kevin Spacey film K-Pax – before we all realised that he was a man of apparently endless evil – where the reviewers agreed that the first two thirds were brilliant but the last third a disaster. A friend of mine remarked that this was the wrong third to be the worst. Meals out are also a question of thirds, but I’d take a bad starter or pudding over an indifferent main.
My pudding was also excellent: a numinous banoffee panacotta comprising banana bread and toffee sauce. It seemed another argument in favour of the idea that the Meatballs Calamity was my mistake. And yet perhaps this meal was also a reminder that even if a restaurant is famous for something else, the kitchen needs to take precise care about everything on the menu: there’s a good chance someone will order your worst dish.
After the visit, a story Clive James used to tell about Joe DiMaggio returned to me. The baseball hero was playing an exhibition game long after he retired, and he went through a lot of practice and warm-up. Someone said, ‘Joe, why do you still try so hard?’ DiMaggio replied, ‘Well, you never know, someone here might not have seen me before’. So too with the meatballs.
The figure rushing back along Grosvenor Square past the former American embassy was therefore a man slightly unsatisfied – but then there remained the possibility Mayfair was dissatisfied with him. It had communicated this from the beginning: it was there, all along, in the decision to rain.
Christopher Jackson is deputy editor of Spear’s