Words and Photography by Marina Benjamin
The Malmaison Hotel in London’s Charterhouse Square must be one of the loveliest locations in the capital – and still pretty much an open secret. So if you’re keen to be on the inside of a good thing, go read this review somewhere quiet. Better still, pull down the lid of your laptop like a clam shell and then burrow beneath it. Because you might not feel like sharing.
I confess that I didn’t expect the new Mal on Sunday brunch to be quite the treat that it is. Mainly I was put off by the all-you-can-eat buffet, or ‘Chef’s Table’, where you can snaffle up as many cold cuts, pates, smoked fishes, salads, chutneys and cheeses as you like – to say nothing of the frying station, where omelets, pancakes and waffles can be rustled up in minutes. And all this before calling in your main. But, in fact, the bounty of this brunch is a beautifully managed thing; staggered through a procession of meandering courses, consumed at leisure; with friendly staff in attendance; and in the company of well-mannered customers, many of them with children. I can’t think of a nicer way to while away the hours of a weekend afternoon, eating, talking and reading the papers. Malmaison has hit on a winning formula, it seems; and it is all about gentle surfeit, not greedy grab’n’go. Cornucopia, not pig’s trough.
The hotel restaurant is in the basement, and despite having light wells that admit shafts of sunlight from the street, the feel is cosy and club-able, more nightclub than dining room. The club privée effect is enhanced by deep velvety chairs and banquettes, which is very accommodating for ye olde hangover. Perhaps that’s why Bloody Mary’s feature so prominently on the menu?
My 10 year-old girl was in her element, revelling in the wealth of choice available, particularly when a freshly pressed waffle arrived, encircled with maple syrup and topped with berries. Inside it were melting M&Ms. Yes, it was custom-made, and yes, I did say maple syrup and M&Ms.
But she’s only 10, and her parents were at least trying to fly the flag for moderation – slowly sipping Mercier champagne (you order by the glass for £10.50), while in His case spooning up some fresh-tasting red pepper and tomato soup, and in Hers, nibbling at a plate of cured meats and fish and smoky fire-roasted vegetables.
My girl ordered steak frites for her main course and received a juicy piece of mallet-struck meat, pink and tender in the middle, accompanied by proper French Fries that were thin rather than stringy, and with a nubbly crisp crust that gave way to a hot potato-y middle. I’m ashamed to say that I pilfered more than a few of these golden batons, and also used the excuse of cutting up her meat to divert a number of delicious mouthfuls my way. But that was only because my wild mushroom risotto was the least accomplished of our mains. Though nicely bosky and oozing aniseed flavour from tarragon, texturally it was wrong, too clumpy and richly cloying for my liking.
King of the main courses was His fishcake – a light and fluffy affair, topped with buttery wilted spinach and a poached egg and dripping with creamy grain-mustard sauce. The flavours in this dish hit 11 and balanced out beautifully, leaving an after-taste of luxurious silkiness in the mouth. I have no idea why anyone would order a Sunday roast here, which, of course, you can, the main courses all being ‘classics’. But the top and tails of this particular outing aspire to greater refinement.
Next came a Mediterranean-style pause. Even the sun shone, a novelty amid this Spring’s wind and bluster. As our thoughts turned to things cheesy, I finished off a smooth-tasting glass of Argentine Malbec, while He enjoyed a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc full of watermelon and peachy zing. The cheese board was not especially extensive. But it was nicely crafted; it even included a buttery Lancashire Bomb, which you don’t come across all that often. We chose a ripe slice of goaty log, some tangy yarg and a creamy French blue, and we had some grape chutney and quince on the side.
My girl claimed she still had room for pudding but I didn’t quite believe her, until she polished off the last of the cheese. We sampled small glasses of Portuguese Tawny port and some ‘sticky’ Chardonnay form the à la carte menu. These came in dinky 50ml glasses – just enough to form a judgement and then confirm it. The sticky Chardonnay was new to me, and a very pleasant discovery to boot. It was sweet as Muscat but with the dignity of a Sancerre, and not sticky like maple, that smacks you up front with sugar, more sticky like toffee, well-rounded and ending on a slightly burnt note.
Speaking of toffee, the sticky toffee pudding I shared with my girl was airy and light, its hot caramel sauce spiked with chopped pecans, and its side of vanilla ice-cream served at just the right temperature. Meanwhile, He ordered an equally light and perfectly brûléed crème (appearing on the menu with all three accents) that didn’t really need the cinnamon spiced madeleine clinging to its side like a shy sibling.
The Mal on Sunday was altogether a delight. We spent three hours there, grazing rather than gorging, and left the table feeling pleasantly sated. The good news – and remember, ssshhhhh! – is that Malmaison’s quality brunch rings in at a mere £19.95 per head, and only £7.95 for children under 12. Even with drinks we spent little more than £100. This is exceptionally good value for money anywhere. But in austerity London it is little short of a steal.