You very much get the restaurant era that you are given. I was not there in the early-Seventies pomp of Le Gavroche. I cannot tell you what it was like to guzzle sole mousseline at Harvey’s under the sexy intensity of Marco’s gaze. But if you want to know about that period of the 2010s when a strange mania for single-item menus gripped the dining firmament, if you want to know about the dawn of Burger & Lobster and the passable, Nando’s for-the-coalition-age experience of The Chicken Shop, then, friends, I am absolutely your man.
A byproduct of this, of course, is that I now get to pronounce on when a rehashed idea isn’t anywhere near as good as it was the first time around. And so, as minimalist menus are once again in vogue, we turn — a little reluctantly — to Swiss Butter: a brand new, Middle East-honed steakhouse where the offering is stripped back to the point of asceticism and the result is something that feels, all at once, both powerfully boring and deeply, deeply weird.
Yes, the sheer quantities of salt, fat and sugar deployed in certain dishes can, now and again, occasion a bludgeoning sort of deliciousness. But there is something cumulatively dispiriting about the “this’ll do’” non-playable-character ordinariness of Swiss Butter’s finer details, something lightly haunting about its implicit disdain for the choice and agency that is integral to the magic of a meal out.
Though, let it be known that this roll-out is built on the fact that lots of people apparently disagree. Founded in Lebanon in 2015, Swiss Butter now encompasses 12 branches across the Middle East and a muscle-flexing plan to hit 100 outposts in the next five years. The first planted flag of this global conquest sits in a big, rattly space beyond the jungly living facade of a building just north of Holborn. The visual mood is the industrial functionality of an airport pub — exposed brick, copper-effect ductwork and what look like the spoils of a fire sale at a nearby filament bulb warehouse. They do not offer tap water (the choices are £3 for mineral or dehydration) and a lamp-lit baguette-warming oven broadcasts from the counter like the world’s most depressing Slow TV show.
The whole point of the menu is that there isn’t one. The only option of main is a chopping board platter of baguette slices, salad leaves, either chips or a baked potato, a little crop circle of dried chilli flakes and then a cast-iron pan filled out with your choice of “protein” (steak, chicken or salmon) and a great, slopping lake of the much-ballyhooed, eponymous sauce: a KFC-ish “secret” concoction of 33 ingredients that, it transpires, is basically just a version of the Café de Paris entrecôte sauce that has been knocking around since the Thirties.
This combination of meal components, faintly redolent of a laden tray at a French service station, is innately appealing. It is just when you drill down into the specifics — tough, gristly ribeye steak, chicken breast with a pappy, cindered dryness, catering supplier fries clattered with too much salt — that a nagging wobbliness starts to build.
Then there is the sauce: an undeniably effective rush of bright herbs, umami (anchovy is clearly key), overwhelming saline and, yes, buttery creaminess, it nonetheless starts to cloy after a while. It is, as cued by its khaki colour, gastronomic camouflage. But its role as both focus of the meal and swamping veil for less-than-stellar produce leaves an odd sort of void.
When you drill down into the specifics — tough, gristly ribeye steak, catering supplier fries — a nagging wobbliness starts to build
In fairness, the two available desserts — a vast, blancmangey pain perdu and a ridged molten chocolate cake — are diverting in the same glucose-spiking way a pair of jumbo Gü puddings might be. But, honestly, the fact there are far better examples of both new wave steakhouses (Blacklock, Le Petit Beefbar) and inexpensive canteens (literally every Ikea) all over London, makes this look like a desultory attempt to tap a new market.
On leaving, I noticed that the opening hours written on the door had not been finalised and so read as :00am to :00am. It was a fitting sign-off for a venture that is out of step with the times, low on meticulousness and lost in the sauce of its own minimalism.
114-118 Southampton Row, WC1B 5AA. Meal for two plus drinks about £90. Open Monday to Saturday from noon-midnight and Sunday, noon-11pm; swissbutter.com