David Ellis reviews July: Talented chef held captive by menu cut off in mid flow

Occasionally baffling, July is a single-use restaurant which is worth a visit, says David Ellis, but just the once
July: Food you want to eat, but wouldn’t Uber for
Adrian Lourie

The word, I suppose, is perplexed. Or perhaps it’s baffled. Or maybe it’s just “why?” Turns of phrase are usually a strong suit but in its way, July has left me speechless. Or at least indecisive.

July is a badly named, poorly laid-out place in Fitzrovia, billed as a restaurant but probably just a wine bar in disguise. Excellent, expensive wine, and food that’s not beautiful — it’s too simple for that — but largely beautifully done. Stuff most want to eat: deep-fried cheese with mustard and cornichons, sausage with sauerkraut, chocolate and hazelnut cake. The crowd is cool, albeit with a goes-on-hikes vibe — clad in Patagonia, but likes Khruangbin, that sort of thing. There’s a lot to love. Well, actually, that’s the snag: what there is, is lovable. There’s just not much of it.

I’m not talking portions. But who looks at a successful restaurant and says, “course, the trouble with this place is everyone keeps coming back”? Perhaps July founders Solynka Dumas and Julian Oschmann. They have — and to their credit, it’s unusual — created a restaurant that is absolutely worth visiting just the once. The menu, with its four starters and three mains, could be eaten in a single sitting. And then you, like me, would totter off to the local boozer (the Duke of York, still confoundingly proud to have Prince Andrew’s portrait as its sign) thinking: how lovely, I’ll never be back.

Gorgeous: Lamb’s heart, calçots and potato
Adrian Lourie

It’s not the quality. They’ve found the answer there by having Honey Spencer choose the bottles — no-one’s been famous in wine since Oz Clarke, but she’s getting there — and Holly Hayes heading the kitchen. Hayes, who cooked under Stevie Williams at 40 Maltby Street, is currently a name only really familiar with the restaurant know-it-alls. She deserves more. I like the clued-up, hands-off approach with the allegedly Alsatian menu. The likes of excellent saucisson reveal taste if not skill, while the pork terrine, spiked healthily with apricot, delighted. Mind you, pickled veg can’t have been much of a stretch. Brave though: cauliflowers and fennel together, sickly white, are a sexless sight.

What else? Purple-sprouting broccoli with Jersey royals and almonds offered, well, broccoli and potato. You have tasted these before. To look at, it had a touch of the dragged-through-a-hedge-backwards, but excellent flavour; fresh. Lamb’s heart, sliced just as bavette often is, arrived expertly pink between a marsh of calçots and a haystack of potato. It was gorgeous.

Three herb dumplings, in a muddy broth, wrong-footed me with their grassiness, but perhaps it should have been expected; the antidote was braised sausage, crisped and browned and sat on sauerkraut with heft, in a mustard sauce with vigour. A dish not for this week but last: a dish for drizzle and cold, for crochety skies.

These are not travel-across town plates or hero dishes. It’s food you want to eat, but wouldn’t call an Uber for

This is — joy — not food to share. Not that there would be much room to, certainly up front, where one row of school desk-sized tables are set so diners eat not facing but beside each other. A constraint of space, but a strange solution: you sit there, staring up at the staff, half-expecting a bollocking for handing in the homework late.

The rub, then, is that the menu appears to have been cut off mid-sentence. I’m all for a concise offering, but three mains is pushing it — Twiggy and I run through twice that just working out what’s for Sunday lunch. And, as evidently talented as Hayes is, these dishes are the kind to idly chat over, to facilitate the night. They are not travel-across-town plates, hero dishes or anything of the sort: they’re dishes to ignore. Food you want to eat, but you wouldn’t Uber for. I wanted fireworks from a chef I suspect has a kitchen full, but hasn’t been allowed to light. On the other hand, Spencer’s low intervention-but-not-idiosyncratic list offers plenty — it’s Don Quixote to Hayes’ haiku (though if it is a wine bar proper, not a restaurant, then the choice by-the-glass is meek).

I left wondering why July’s founders went to the trouble of getting someone like Hayes, only to offer her talents such limited exposure. I wanted more. So I can’t work it out: was I baffled? Somewhat. But maybe — ouch, whisper — the word is “bored”.

10 Charlotte Street, W1T 2LT. Meal for two plus drinks and service, about £170. Open Monday to Saturday from 8am-11pm (9am Saturdays); july.london