Serge: Don’t judge a restaurant by its exterior

I had formed an instinctive dislike for Serge prior to entering. Located inside the currently uber-cool Mandrake Hotel, the building’s black-clad exterior and imposing bouncer at its front speak of exclusion and exclusivity. Surely dining should be all about inclusion and opportunity? Fortunately, once inside the hallowed turf (yes, we were down on the list, and they did like the looks of our faces), the experience improved markedly. The waiting staff could not have been friendlier, there was a relaxed vibe in the dining room and the food was first-class. By way of background, the original Serge et le phoque is in Hong Kong and the proud owner of one Michelin star. In the unceasing quest to find the ‘next new thing’ in London, it was perhaps a masterstroke of the Mandrake to bring the concept over here. Now in its second iteration, the ‘et le phoque’ (curiously, ‘and the seal’ – I am not cool enough to get whether this is some sort of in-joke) has been thankfully minimised in the venue’s branding, the Asian influences from the menu dropped, and there is a welcome return to the Head Chef’s Mediterranean roots. Unsurprisingly, tapas-style sharing dishes are the norm here (as seems de rigueur across town), but the menu comes in an easy-to-use format, with a wide range of meat, fish and vegetarian options. Pricing – much to my surprise, given the context and the quality of the food – is reasonable, although, of course, the danger with small dishes is that they (and your bill) can quickly add up. That said, there is every reason to sample across the menu. The team at Serge have clearly done their homework well, particularly in the sourcing of top-quality ingredients. This was most evidenced by our initial dish, a platter of Iberico ham with pickled almonds. The moist tenderness of the meat was among the best I have sampled outside Spain. Serge does much more than the effectively simple though. A dish such as seared scallop with peach, artichoke and poutargue (dried and salted fish eggs) showed immense culinary boldness. It was presented to us as a vivid flash of colour and the contrasting flavours and textures worked perfectly. Not everything quite hit these high notes and a couple of our dishes even bordered on the forgettable (such as the ceviche or the pork cheeks), but the overall standard was high, with Serge getting the balance just about right between innovation and tradition. Cocktails and a well-conceived wine list also impressed, but beware: don’t drink too much. This is not a call to temperance but simply an observation that on leaving the dining room, one is thrust back into the almost too-cool world of the Mandrake. Pod-like toilets (per at Sketch) provide a notable talking point, but are almost impossible to find!