“ Villandry, 170 Great Portland Street, London, W1W 5QB.Tel: +44 (0)20 7631 3131 „
Went to the Villandry on Great Portland/Bolsover Street today for breakfast. I ordered eggs royal, it was cold and the eggs were undercooked. My friend asked for scrambled eggs on toast, he sent it back as it was essentially raw egg on bread. Pull your socks up Villandry, you can do better than this, surely?
Located off Great Portland Street in Central London, Villandry appears to see itself as something of a culinary 'experience'. The unit occupied is enormous, straddles between two major streets and includes a café, bakery, grocery shop, baby shop, take away and smart restaurant. Villandry's reputation is good; I have a number of clients and peers who are often keen to dine here, believing it to be a lesser-known celebrity haunt and gastronomic celebration. It's true that the lower list celebrities can sometimes be seen here; Villandry's proximity to BBC Broadcasting House probably helps that and it certainly looks the part. Tastefully set out in contemporary but stylish, Mediterranean designs, Villandry 'feels' like a good quality establishment.
It's extremely accessible. Located within genuine walking distance of no fewer than five Tube lines, serviced by three stations. Take the Victoria Line to Warren Street, the Bakerloo to Regent's Park or Circle, Hammersmith and City or Metropolitan lines to Great Portland Street and you'll find yourself at the front door within ten minutes. Great Portland Street itself is a busy bus route and there is some off-street parking, but by the time you've factored in the congestion charge during the day and/or the cost of the meter, you'd really be better off leaving the car at home.
From Great Portland Street, Villandry has two entrances, one into the shop and takeaway and one into the café. At night, the shop doorway is locked up and you can only access the café. Access to the restaurant is intended via Great Titchfield Street to the rear of the building, but if you do come in through the café by mistake, you can still get through to the restaurant. During the day, a small number of tables occupy the street outside, tempting office workers and shoppers to grab something to eat in the sunshine or, perhaps more importantly, offering the one respite where they can eat and smoke. It's not exactly an appealing location. Great Portland Street is a busy traffic route and the thundering lorries, combined with a constant stream of people chattering and smoking their way past you leaves much to be desired.
Experiences at Villandry vary enormously according to which services you are using and the time of day. Generally, I'm quite surprised that the place has the reputation it does. I find it to be a little over-priced, with that brisk kind of service one can only really associate with such a large, sprawling enterprise.
The lunch/takeaway shop is unsurprisingly popular, offering a genuinely interesting selection of cakes, pastries, salads and hot meals that contrast notably against the likes of Sainsburys, Pret and Starbucks. The salads are good. You basically select the ingredients from a reasonably good choice of basics and they toss it all up in a dressing of your choice, giving you complete control of the quantity and variety of the ingredients. Indeed, the popularity of this means that the range is often sold out towards the end of a busy lunchtime. There's also a stir-fry of the day, either to eat in or take away, which is always delicious and at around £6 or £7, well priced for a hot lunch. The staff members working this area are legendarily rude and unhelpful, to an almost comical extent, however, and it's best to take a friend so that you can marvel at the way in which they sigh when you change your mind about extra olives in the salad.
The main shop sells a range of food, drink and kitchenware and is massively, massively over-priced. There's a really good mayonnaise that you can buy in Waitrose for £1.00 and in here the exact same jar is £3.50. The chocolates and confectionary is varied and interesting but, frankly, you'd have to be daft to pay this much - even Harvey Nichols isn't as expensive as Villandry. It also suffers from something of an identity crisis, roughly appearing to be an ethical, free range, Fairtrade kind of place, which then goes on to sell foie gras. It's completely contrary to try and be ethical and put such a huge mark up on your products and isn't somewhere that I'd ever really support. The home-baked bread is of a good quality but still very expensive. The only exception is that they sell a range of lovely hand-made greetings cards, quite unlike anything I've found elsewhere.
The café is brisk and cosmopolitan with a bustling vibe that's remarkably appealing. It's always busy and full of excited shoppers, curious tourists and chatty business people and, for atmosphere alone, I love it. Even the tables out on the street seem to carry this forward and it just feels like an exciting place to be, which is a good job because the menu certainly isn't on the same level. Pricewise, I'm not sure that there's an enormous distinction between the café and the restaurant when you consider that there isn't much change from £20 for one of the main courses. They're not even terribly inspiring. The café 'special' fish and chips are just 'nice' but nothing special. The beer batter is far less beer-like than most gastropubs and they never seem to be able to commit to the actual species of fish that's lying there waiting to be eaten. That aside, the mussels are always very good and the very rustic sandwiches and burgers are always welcome. Ever conscious of the ticking clock, service in the café at lunchtime is usually pretty prompt and they'll easily get you in, fed, watered, paid up and out within the hour, which is essential for anyone between meetings. They don't sniff if you just drop in for a coffee either, even if they would rather let the table go to someone with an appetite too. Service is added as standard to the bill, which is certainly not uncommon, but never something I particularly appreciate.
I'm rather less forgiving of the restaurant, which I think is certainly the most over-hyped part of the Villandry experience. Service is very changeable; it's not unusual to get a waiter who speaks absolutely no English whatsoever and diners are regularly left waiting for courses, drinks and (most frequently) bills. Whilst the waiting staff is certainly polite and (generally) friendly, it certainly couldn't be described as attentive and there's no real 'experience' here that makes you feel special or valued. Even the most basic of embellishments is missing; I always have to ask for water and the bread that is served whilst you wait for starters could easily be a Tesco baguette that has been sliced up and dropped in a little basket. The restaurant is reasonably formal (smart casual is acceptable, jeans and workman boots frowned upon) but really seems to lack any kind of atmosphere. Large parties of diners are quite common during the week and if there are only two of you, it's likely that you'll find yourself perched in a corner adjacent to some raucous Americans. The ambience isn't helped by the lighting either, which suddenly seems to get turned up really bright without warning and then drops down again when the complaints follow.
The wine list is reasonably good but not as impressive as you might expect from a large, established restaurant with the most expensive bottle at about £50. Unsurprisingly, the restaurant is not prepared to show confidence in the entire list, opting to offer only the cheapest, most mainstream wines by the glass, forcing you to find one or more bottles that will suit all diners, which is no mean feat if one of you has fish, one is on the steak and another has chicken.
The French menu generally seems heavily biased towards seafood but does feature alternatives for those who aren't keen on 'les fruits de la mer'. The menu changes seasonally, but not as frequently as I'd expect and (without being an expert) I'm not sure how adaptive the chef is to what's in season or what's best 'that week'. The menu only makes a cursory gesture to vegetarians with maybe one starter and one main menu option for those who don't eat meat. Worse still, it's not uncommon for these two courses to be based around the same key ingredient - I've seen asparagus served in hollandaise sauce as a starter and then again in a risotto main course on the same menu with no other vegetarian options. Curiously, I think it's when Villandry keeps it simple that they get it right. I could get addicted to their macaroni cheese for example, just deliciously smooth, mild and creamy and perfect as a starter. (Another restaurant in London tries this with Dolcelatte and Stilton and it's far too intense as a starter). The quality of their steaks is pretty good and I like the variety of seafood dishes even if I'm more inclined to opt for chicken or steak. I love their Kentish lamb (very moist and flavoursome) and also their cooked breakfasts, which are a welcome, occasional brunch.
Crushingly, the waiting staff doesn't always know as much about the menu as I'd like and aren't able to confidently recommend wines or accompaniments. Indeed, when prompted they don't even always know what each of the dishes comprises. On a recent visit, I noticed that there was a 'chicken paillard' main and wasn't completely confident that I knew what this was. When asked, the waiter described this in terms that wouldn't have been out of place at KFC (a leg, coated in breadcrumbs and quickly fried). The dish was in fact a breast fillet flattened, griddled with a drizzle of garlic oil and topped with a tangy red pepper salsa. Go figure. If I'm honest, I rarely get to a dessert, having long since lost interest in eating, even if Villandry's Mars Bar cheesecake is a deliciously indulgent combination of luxury and working class.
The restaurant is, by no means, at the top of the price scale, but it isn't cheap. A meal for two, with two courses and drinks won't leave you much change from £60 and that's without adding in a bottle of wine or the service charge, if you feel that way inclined. I have to say I would never visit the restaurant if I was personally paying for the meal - it's simply not up the standard that the price dictates.
Villandry has certainly established a strong reputation and presence within London and remains very popular. There are lots of things that they do well - the salad bar and take away lunches are good and I love the atmosphere in the café - but the main restaurant is consistently disappointing and not worth the attention lavished upon it. It has, however, achieved that rare feat of maintaining enough of a presence on the dining scene to excite interest, regardless of whether it is merited.
Located on Great Portland Street in Marylebone, our flagship Villandry store is an all day French restaurant, foodstore, bakery and bar all under one roof.