Wil­liam Sitwell at Martha’s

Our critic is un­der­whelmed by a day­time visit to an Amer­i­can-style diner in Soho

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Content - Wil­liam Sitwell

IT WAS AN awk­ward en­counter. She was tired and hun­gover and a lit­tle grubby. I was fresh-faced, I’d been up for hours, and my friend wore a suit.

It’s like that un­com­fort­able, em­bar­rass­ing mo­ment when you’re just get­ting in from the night be­fore and you find the vicar in the kitchen, or the Queen Mother. But we had landed at Martha’s, they were open and we just wanted some lunch.

I was in­ter­ested to try out this Amer­i­can-style diner, a new ad­di­tion to the mul­ti­tude of places vy­ing for peo­ple’s at­ten­tion on the streets of Soho.

And when ar­rived I could see, straight ahead, some of Martha’s swanky fea­tures. A beau­ti­fully lit room; my kind of wattage. A chan­de­lier in the mid­dle, then other 1920s-style hang­ing lights, low-level wall lights and those stylish and cute lit­tle lamps with mini shades on the tables. There are leather ban­quettes and white linen table­cloths, and amid the walls, adorned with swirls of browny-orange brushed-silk wall­pa­per, are dap­pled mir­rors and art. A neon light on the largest mir­ror spells out, ‘Noth­ing to see here.’ The work, by the Amer­i­can artist Olivia Steele, sug­gests that you shun the van­ity of mir­rors, you can get your kicks else­where. It’s a great room.

But no, alas, you’re not sit­ting in there. That’s for night-time, when the lights are dimmed and the place is

buzzing and the cock­tails and drag acts come out.

Our ta­ble was in the front part, which is more pub than diner. We were two of some six din­ers in there. We were given yes­ter­day’s menus (well that’s how I ac­count for mine hav­ing three or four yel­lowy blobs on the bot­tom, be­low a stylish draw­ing of the front of the restau­rant). They fea­tured the façade and the im­age of a woman; high-heeled, tiny­waisted, in a sort of red swim­suit, wear­ing sun­glasses and hold­ing a cock­tail.

There was also a crum­pled drinks list; a folded piece of A4. I turned the page and the in­side spread of whiskies and cock­tails was up­side down. When this hap­pens at a coun­try church with the or­der of communion or pew news, you can for­give the old duck who at least found a pho­to­copier after a bus ride into town, but it’s un­usual for a chic Soho diner.

I or­dered a starter of cala­mari fritti. The bat­ter slid off the rings as I popped them on the fork. But I gob­bled them all up and the dish was nicely spiced by a gen­er­ous pile of chill­ies and co­rian­der. Maybe if I’d been eat­ing them in the other room – where I wanted to be, at the wrong time, with a cold beer, my at­ten­tion dis­tracted by Martha’s drag act and a jazz band – they would have tasted even bet­ter.

But my pal’s cour­gette flower had nowhere to hide. He pushed a stodgy cro­quette thing around the plate where it lay amid some tired peas, flabby cour­gette sticks and lit­tle cubes of things that looked like beet­root but would have left you none the wiser in a blind taste test.

My main course was a ‘half roast chicken’. But the wait­ress re­turned with the news that they were out of it. Out of chicken? Out of half a chicken? At an Us-style joint on a quiet Wed­nes­day lunch with only some four or five other din­ers? It baf­fles me when a restau­rant runs out of a key dish even be­fore ser­vice.

So I or­dered the Cajun salmon fil­let in­stead. Now I don’t pro­fess to be an ex­pert on Cajun af­fairs, but I reckon when it’s on a menu next to the word salmon it sug­gests a lit­tle Louisiana spice, a hint of cayenne pep­per, a green onion… This piece of salmon had none of that but it did have burnt skin and over­cooked flesh. Fine if you want to char the skin for a taste of flame and some crunch, but this red­dish piece of salmon was flaky and dry. The fish came on a pile of mash and next to some lit­tle blocks of un­ripe mango which sat on swirls of a white cream of in­de­ter­mi­nate ori­gin. I quite en­joyed the mash in its but­tery, rus­tic and chunky way. My pal was eat­ing fried chicken. And, yes, I know they said they had no chicken that day, but there we are. It was as tired and spent as Martha her­self.

Poor old Martha. She’s re­ally a night­time bird, when, I as­sume, the part of the restau­rant we ate in is filled with merry drinkers not fuss­ing about food.

Still, as she is open dur­ing the day she ought to have a cold shower and sharpen up a bit.

Maybe if I’d been eat­ing them while dis­tracted by a drag act, they would have tasted even bet­ter

Be­low Martha’s fried chicken with mash, ap­ple slaw and honey-truf­fle sauce

Above Cajun salmon fil­let with grilled-mango salsa, lemon crushed potato and sour cream.

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