I thought I'd heard good things about 21, in Covent Garden. I'd heard stories of an impeccable dining experience that put other restaurants to shame. Where I'd heard these rumours from I don't know because that certainly wasn't what we experienced on Saturday.
That was fit for one, not two. Next to a brick wall. After being unceremoniously moved, we were given the rather concise wine list. With only two roses on the list - one sweet and the other too old a vintage to be worth drinking - we were pushed to the whites and chose a trusty bottle of Pinot Grigio. Which came out warm. Attempts to switch it for a cold bottle were futile but we were given a cooler filled with ice which helped bring down more than one temperature.
Moving on, it was time to browse the menu and we decided to make the most of the sharing plates on offer. And here is where 21 started to redeem itself. We started with the trio of crostini: vine plum, tomato and basil which had the right amount of citrusy/vinegary zing to bring the flavours to life; beetroot cured salmon with horseradish cream and pink peppercorn that was perfectly balanced and hugely moreish; and the goat's cheese and parma ham with fig, the classic combination of sweet, salt and tang which I could happily eat over and over. We also chose the seabass fillet which came served on a mountain of 'bronzed fennel caponata'. Despite it tasting more like ratatouille, the caponata was a strong accompaniment to the brilliantly cooked fish and very reasonable at £6.95 for a portion that most would serve as a main. We rounded off our starters with the fried baby squid with saffron aioli - dainty and thankfully crisp (not chewy), these were lovely and my only complaint is that there wasn't more of them!
For mains, we decided on the antipasto platter, still dreaming of our time in Puglia. Served on a board, there was a selection of salami (crudo, parma, bresaola and milano), cheese (goat's, comte, blue and a soft), bread (flatbread, a stale white baguette and some juicy foccacia) and a handful of grapes that may or may not have had a few missing from a previous nibbler. Nevertheless, we consumed the lot.
So the food itself was mostly great, but the rest of the 21 experience left a lot to be desired. Seated near the kitchen (in the empty restaurant) we did see lots of kitchen hands carrying large sauce tubs past our table, there were only salt and pepper shakers and not grinders (a huge bugbear of mine) on the table, and there was little atmosphere to speak of, which was a shame given we were in the heart of Covent Garden.
The website talks of an 'Italian' experience complete with the terrace in the piazza and another bar in the building but I don't think I'll be going back to experience either. With a glut of great restaurants in London, this one just doesn't make the cut. Two and a half out of five, if I'm being generous.