When Sir Terence Conran opened the doors to his restaurant Lutyens in 2009, he did so in the hope he might “tempt a few journalists back to Fleet Street and get the bankers out of their bunkers and spending again”.
His hope for the former proved in vain as the last of the journalists (two reporters for the Dundee-based Sunday Post) officially packed their bags on the home of British newspapers midway through last year.
But you don’t get to be one of Britain’s most famous designers and restaurateurs with an empire worth a reported £85million by misreading your market. Five minutes inside this classic French brasserie will tell you that despite all the outward nostalgia for the former home of Reuters (a mosaic tickertape snakes its way along the floor of the bar), the latter was the real target all along.
Styling is elegant and understated, service is bow-tied and attentive, the wine list as weighty as a dictionary and the menu full of French classics that would surely taste even better on a bulging expense account.
Yes, Lutyens knows exactly who its EC4 audience is, so it is unclear why, on a Thursday night, the bar at the front of the building is buzzing while the 130-seater restaurant has just a smattering of tables occupied.
It couldn’t be the service; formal but friendly, quick on the water refills (as one might expect with so little to do) but well-trained against hovering.
Nor the wine; head sommelier Yves Desmaris knows his list inside out, translating umm-ing and ah-ing and digressions about a recent trip to the Loire Valley into a truly magnificent Domaine De La Marinière L’Arbre Mort Chinon, well worth its £75 price tag.
Nor could it be the food; a robust but not overawing menu of mostly French classics that is well executed by head chef Daniel Mertl, who sharpened his chef’s knives at Mayfair’s La Gavroche and La Trompette in West London before firing the burners at Lutyens.
Conscious of heavy mains rounding the corner, we elected to start with a salad of tuna loin and prawns, deliciously light with a soy dressing that demonstrates Mertl’s willingness to look beyond France for inspiration.
The chicken liver and foie gras parfait, however, is unashamedly traditional and better for it, and threw all good intentions about starting light into the empty bread basket. For mains, a perfectly-cooked Dedham Vale fillet steak was served simply with a side of béarnaise and a generous helping of chunky triple-cooked chips.
Surprisingly, the real star of the show proved the seldom celebrated slow-cooked lamb shoulder, packed with flavour and expertly partnered with a spiced aubergine and chickpea ragu.
Cheeses won over the heavily French dessert menu; you try saying no to the shabby chic glass-fronted cabinet full of the stuff when it is holding a prime parking position right by the door.
All-in-all, Lutyens is a well-oiled machine that would surely prove a tempting prospect for the City’s bankers and brokers, who still haven’t shown up to the party by the time we turn in. Unless, of course, they are all busy packing up their bunkers for France ahead of Prime Minister Theresa May triggering Article 50 next week, in which case Sir Terence might need to plan for another changing of the Fleet Street guard.
Lutyens, 85 Fleet Street EC4Y 1AE