Walking around sketch is like wading through the mind of a drugged-up lunatic. Just as The Crystal Maze had ‘zones’, each room in sketch has its own theme. In the lobby, chairs disturbingly look as though they are being swallowed-up by the wall. To the right there’s the Parlour, serving desserts and comfort foods in an environment resembling a ski lodge fit for royalty. Beyond the cloakroom lies the Glade with its giant wallpaper sheets that create an illusion of the kind of woodland in which you’d expect to find Legolas going down on Lord Elrond. Carry on and you come to the Gallery, laden with artworks by Turner Prize winner Martin Creed, including a zigzagging floor fashioned from ninety-six different kinds of marble, and a dining-room where no two pieces of cutlery, glassware, or furniture are alike. And let’s not forget the toilets which take the form of attention-seeking, futuritsic pods scattered across a raised area.
The Precious One
The two Michelin starred Lecture Room and Library is located up a flight of stairs lacquered in a pool of ‘blood’, at the top of which sits the harrowing mannequin of a naked woman with skin like a disco-ball and an afro that would make The Jackson 5 jealous. Once inside, you are enveloped in majesty and grandeur: Crimson and gold carpets; leather-padded walls; effortless chairs. Extravagance.
Whereas most restaurants use interior design as a way to gently say something about themselves, sketch uses it as a battlecry: A warped dimension of concept driven escapism designed to compete for your attention. Though the privilege of dining here will blow a hole through your wallet. The Pierre Gagnaire designed menu pits starters at a dizzying average of £40. Mains then begin at £40 and go up to £55. I don’t think I’ve ever opened and shut a wine list so fast.
Perfume of the Earth £37
According to the menu, Gagnaire’s favourite perfume – Terre d’Hermès – was the inspiration behind my elaborate starter entitled ‘Perfume of the Earth’. Split into three dishes, I’m told to start with the smoked cocotte of snails and vegetables over which the waiter pours a splendid foie gras soup which dominates. So if Terre d’Hermès is the essence of force-fed, bloated duck livers, then this right on the money. Phase two is inside-out-maki-like beef carpaccio stuffed with raw vegetables, in a beetroot syrup with Colman’s mustard, which is very Asian in character. And finally there is a beyond pretentious plate of sautéed Jerusalem artichokes and baked ricotta topped with the colourful, fragrant petals of artichoke flowers on a thin film of powerless Sauternes jelly.
Then comes the lamb. With it is a side of tomato tartlet which neatly combines the textures of brittle pastry with smooth tomato paste and squidgy sweetbreads. There is also a bowl containing a ewe cheese yoghurt along with potent Roquefort that the waiter instructs me to “play with” as I make inroads into the lamb, which is breathtaking: There is saddle of Quercy lamb cooked to absolute perfection with a rich crust of caramelised fat, glazed in a sexy yellow-brown jus that I only wish there was more of. Better yet is a pan-fried rack of lamb so loaded with flavour; so masterfully seasoned; so satisfying to chew it makes you glad to be alive. Saying that, it would have been better if they found a way to combine everything onto a single plate, as not doing so feels like a cop-out.
Chocolate soufflé £13
Desserts prolong the excess. I end with a giant dome of chocolate soufflé which is so light it only just manages to retain some texture. The waiter impregnates the dome with a dollop of liquorice ice cream, then generously drizzles a liquid ganache of very rich Guanaja chocolate. It’s let down by a needless side plate of other things: a star-shaped bowl of a liver-like cocoa jelly which isn’t very pleasant; a ewe cheese velouté which is actually just a wad of ewe cheese; and a candied orange paste which tastes like Jaffa Cake filling. They should learn to quit when they’re ahead.
Every time it’s just a step too far. There is some real substance behind the cooking but the eccentric showboating that befits the environment doesn’t suit the food. A little less would be a lot more. It would help to legitimise the more polarising aspects of sketch, which is undeniably a place of high pretension.
I actually like what they’ve created here. It adds an element of drama seldom seen. The staff play their role but none are more well-rehearsed than the general manager David, who will make you feel important and disarm you with personal tours and explanations of the various rooms before escorting you up to the dining-room. He’ll also catch you on the way out. You’ll leave realising you’ve just witnessed a performance that began the moment you entered the building.
food : 8/10
service : 8/10
ambience : 8.5/10
value : 5/10
9 conduit street, London W1S 2XG
020 7659 4500