Finger-licking may be frowned upon in most Mayfair restaurants, but at Quince, its irresistible. The urge to sneakily swipe up the last traces of a dish arises about two minutes after the avocado hummus (whipped to an airiness that renders it a different species than stodgier grocery-store versions) and smoked aubergine with pomegranate hit the table. And it rears its head in earnest when the last chicken wing, slathered in a caramelised chilli and harissa glaze, disappears from the plate.
The small dishes are the standouts at Chef Silvena Rowes shrine to Mediterranean cooking. So much so that when Lewis Hamilton - not a noted foodie, maybe, but a man who knows what he likes - visited, he slurped and nibbled his way through four orders of the chicken wings, and nothing else.
Its The May Fairs starry guests like the F1 champ and Daisy Lowe who have kept Quinces name in the press, but the face of the brand is very much Rowe. The platinum-quiffed chef and cookbook author was a constant presence at the restaurant during our visit. Shes full of menu pointers and anecdoteswhen we asked her to help us choose between two dishes, she told us that she would be cooking one of them on the BBCs Saturday Kitchen programme the following day.
The premises are as warm and gleaming as the chef. Ottoman-style stained glass and claret velvet banquettes give it the feel of a speakeasy in a hammam. Its one of the few restaurants we can think of where fruit has been used as a decorative accent to such a graphic effect as in the entryway, where floor-to-ceiling cubbies display specimens of the establishments namesake. Quince appears on the cocktail menu too, of which the chief bartender is justifiably proud (the Quince Martini marries apple and orange vodkas, Goldschlager, quince apple, quince jelly, apple juice and cognac, with a dash of cinnamon to finish it off).
Back to the food. The flirtatiously sized portions raised hopes high for the mains, but as in too many restaurants, they proved a lull. Five-spice halibut arrived cold and meagre-feeling after the richness of the starters. The pork belly was better received by a fellow diner. But the appearance of entrees shouldnt cue diners to realise theyve under-ordered, and ask for last-second sides.
Some cuisines arent appreciably better in haute restaurants than modest eateries. We would pit the £5 Thai green curry from our local formica-tabled take-out joint against any elevated version. Similarly, at £7.50, the signature dessert of bitter orange baklava with pistachio ice cream wasnt necessarily £6.50 better than the crisp, flaky baklava doled out with a smile at the kebab shop on our high road.
In short, Quince is a night-starter: a place with an in-the-thick of it setting, inventive cocktails and addictive nibbles. For anything more filling, be sure to order multiples.
The ELLEuk Score
Style of food: Middle Eastern
Good for: Quick bite after work; Pre-theatre; First date; Romantic; Work lunch/dinner
Prices and Other Details at Quince
Address: The May Fair Hotel, Stratton Street, Mayfair, London, W1J 8LT
Average price per person for two course meal without wine: £90
Set menu: The whole baby lamb feast £80.00 per person; 24 hours notice required; minimum 8 people
Price of bottle house wine: Sauvignon Blanc, Monte Verde 2009/10 £19.50 (white); Cabernet/Zinfandel, Turner Road Three Rivers 2008/9 £19.50 (red).
Price of glass house wine: Malvasia del Lazio, Terre dei Grifi 2007/9 £5.50 (white); Cabernet Sauvignon, Errazuriz 2009 £7 (red).
Price glass house champagne: Duval-Leroy Brut NV £11.75
Price bottle house champagne: £47.75, as above
Private dining? Yes. At the chefs table
Outside dining? No
Bar? Yes. A moodily lit space with an extensive cocktail menu to go alongside lots of gold and twinkling lights
Best tables: A banquette by the window for keeping an eye out for paparazzi scrums
Who goes? Fashion eds, celebs and post-Mayfair shopping trip hotel guests
Nearest tube: Green Park