Gaia, London: ‘Nosebleedingly expensive’ – restaurant review

<span>Greek odyssey: Gaia’s dining room, with its warm clusters of globe lights and tasteful objets d’art.</span><span>Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer</span>
Greek odyssey: Gaia’s dining room, with its warm clusters of globe lights and tasteful objets d’art.Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Gaia, 50 Dover Street, London W1S 4NY ( Starters £10-£55; mains £32-£230; desserts £14-£36; wines from £45

Oliver Putnam, the washed-up Broadway director played by Martin Short in Only Murders in the Building, would adore Gaia, named after the goddess earth mother. Famously, Putnam lives on dips and Gaia is a veritable dip heaven. It starts with a dollop of soft, whipped, herb-flecked feta. That is followed by an indecently luscious taramasalata, like a savoury Chantilly, just begging to be scooped away with the accompanying hoop of still-warm sesame-crusted koulouri bread. There’s a fava bean dip, and a smoked aubergine dip and a tzatziki. Dip, my darlings. Dip like the wind. Mind you, the notoriously skint Putnam wouldn’t be able to access that which he so desires. For this is also dip heaven in that it can only be afforded by the gods; by those who can carelessly spend £12 on a thumb-high whorl of whipped cod’s roe.

Gaia, which hilariously describes itself as a “refined taverna”, much I suppose as the Ritz across the road is a refined Travelodge, represents London right now, or at least that version of London north of Piccadilly. It is owned by a Russian who is based in Dubai and has a kitchen overseen by a Nigerian-born chef who has written a menu of Greek dishes to be served to a fully Botoxed clientele from Asia, the Middle East and Europe who need never look at the menu’s right-hand column. So why did I go? Partly, because it’s intriguing to see whether there is a significantly elevated version of traditional dishes (spoiler: there isn’t) and partly because to point and laugh at stupid things, you must first pay for the stupid things.

So sit down alongside me on the pale blue banquette and take in the warm, glowing clusters of globe ceiling lights which, depending on your level of bitter cynicism, dangle like bunches of grapes or like haemorrhoids begging for treatment. Enjoy the tasteful objets d’art and the artisanal linens, the Zaro’s mineral water imported from Greece and the trophy cabinet of big wines downstairs by the loos, packed with La Tâche, Château Latour and 1994 Petrus for those punters who are only prepared to go so far with the whole humble, peasanty Greek thing.

The menu is divided into starters and larger dishes all of which are meant to be eaten “family style” by people who may well have several of them. I’d describe the food as nosebleeding expensive, but that might make a mess of all the creamy linen. A 350g goat dish is £75. A rib-eye is £95. The whole grilled chicken with fried bread and winter truffle is £130, and the T-bone steak is £230, though that does include chips. Interestingly, the day I went some of the prices online were between £5 and £8 lower. I’d warn you to be aware of that, but we all know you’re not going. Equally, while they’re all doubtless lovely, this newspaper’s expenses won’t cover them.

Instead, we have three dolmades for £16 and they are fine: loosely rolled, a good sharp lemony edge to the rice filling, a dainty scattering of fresh herbs and pine nuts across the top. They are not, however, twice as good as those that cost half the price. They’re just a little prettier. The small, flat splodge of ground beef moussaka for £24 is so spoonable, so very soft, you could eat it without recourse to teeth. Then again, dental implants are expensive. You wouldn’t want to risk them. I would like to have tried the courgette tempura and the cheese pies, but they’re all out of courgettes and cheese today. Instead, we have baby squid, which is very much on the chewy, adolescent side of baby. It’s nowhere near as good, for example, as the version at Mandarin Kitchen, which is twice the size for less than two-thirds the cost.

Much better is the half corn-fed chicken, with dark marinated skin and a herb-stuffed breast. It’s a lovely dish for £24. Except it’s £42. For that money I want the whole thing. This one is missing its wing. Where’s my bloody chicken wing? A £12 portion of broccoli with a fine dice of chilli and garlic is just a bunch of accountants laughing uproariously at us. The omnipresent service is solicitous, verging on the infantilising. They are constantly attempting to portion up our dishes for us. I assure them we can cut up our lunch ourselves.

At the heart of the offering is the “fish market”, an ice-stacked counter full of red mullet, Dover sole and the like, priced by the kilo. There’s a solitary black Canadian lobster, still alive, its limbs twitching as if it’s trying to make a run for it. I know how it feels. You choose your fish and they’ll fry, grill or salt bake it as you wish. The prices force me to call Rex Goldsmith of the renowned Chelsea Fishmonger. He tells me his kilo price for mackerel is £12.50. I tell him at Gaia it’s £100. Rex gasps. “Christ,” he says. “At that price the fish should give you a blowjob.” I am merely the reporter here. A kilo of John Dory retails for £26.50. Here it’s £150. Red mullet is £36. At Gaia it’s £140. And so on.

For dessert our waiter cheerily recommends the frozen yoghurt with honey and caramelised walnuts. Of course he does. It’s the most expensive choice at £36. Sorry to bang on about the prices but they are the gilded, diamond-encrusted, Jimmy-Chooed elephants in the room. What do you get for that? Who knows. I’m not about to find out. There’s also something called a Tarta me Fistikia, which is a name that conjures many images. It turns out to be a truly magnificent layered fridge cake with a crunchy base of peanut shortbread, stacked with salted caramel and a deep chocolate mousse. The portion will serve two for £18, so £9 a head. It is by far the best value on the menu and the best thing we eat. Come for a scoop of the exceedingly good tarama. Fill up on the free bread. Finish with the peanut tart. Laugh at the facelifts. Go home.

The day after my visit, I am emailed by Fundamental Hospitality, the company behind Gaia, offering me a free meal in any of their “esteemed locations in exchange for coverage”. Damn. I could have saved the paper £200 (with no booze), and still written this piece. This is how Western civilisation ends: not with a bang, but with a £20 plate of mediocre calamari.

News bites

A new restaurant operator is attempting to turn the threat of a meal out being a total nightmare into a certainty with the launch in Birmingham this summer of a horror film-themed restaurant and bar. Merlin’s, which is scheduled to open in early August on the city’s Corporation Street, will apparently have a restaurant and cocktail bar inspired by the themes in Stranger Things, Beetlejuice and other horror-based movies and shows. After 6pm the upstairs bar area will become adults only. As the company behind the venture says, “Every detail at Merlin’s has been carefully crafted to provide a positively horrifying experience.” And so on.

Sales of chain restaurant branded foods to eat at home have jumped, according to numbers from supermarket delivery company Ocado. Sales of products, including Franco Manca pizzas, Gourmet Burger Kitchen burgers and meals by the Asian-inspired Itsu have risen by 50% in the past year, while sales of Hawksmoor-branded steaks are up over 30%. Ocado says purchases seem to be clustered around weekends, which they are ascribing to people replacing expensive take-aways with cheaper “fake-aways”, a word which will never again appear in this column.

Chester’s hoteliers are to be balloted on the proposed introduction of a £2-a-night tourist tax. The levy would aim to raise around £1m a year from the city’s 27 hotels, which would then be spent on various visitor events and festivals. A similar £1-a-night project in Manchester, raised £2.8m in its first year.

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