William Sitwell at Martha’s
Our critic is underwhelmed by a daytime visit to an American-style diner in Soho
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.