It would be very easy to be very cynical about The Ivy. The original was – and possibly still is, it’s been a while – a cracker, a restaurant as synonymous with a certain type of celebrity as it was with its surprising menu of elevated, crowd-pleasing, comforting classics. On my two visits there at that mid-90s peak, I have memories of excellent Shepherd’s Pie, cheese on toast to finish, being sat just across from Noel Edmonds on my first visit, and having Joan Collins waft past me on my second.
In those days, The Ivy was an early cornerstone of the Corbin and King empire. Then Richard Caring took it over and recreated the concept all over Middle England. We’ll ignore The Ivy Asia spin-off and that ad – which suggested he’s Caring by name and not particularly by nature – partly because that’s already been thoroughly documented by many better placed to comment than me, and partly because I’ve never eaten in one. Although that is, admittedly, mostly because of that advert…
I digress. The rollout of The Ivy always struck me as bizarre. I mean, did the people of, say, Godalming expect to grab a quick bite on the high street and spot a minor soap star who’d popped to Surrey for a crumpet? Surely the cachet of The Ivy was its seemingly ever-present celebrity clientele rather than its ability to serve a thoroughly decent fish and chips and apple pie?
All of which goes some way to explain why Richard Caring is a billionaire and I’m a freelance journalist… Because every time I’ve eaten in a Home Counties Ivy spin-off, it’s been: a) thoroughly decent; b) good value; c) completely devoid of even a D-lister; and d) packed to the absolute blooming rafters. And this trip to The Ivy Market Grill, to test the imminent festive menu, was no different.
I’d been to this particular location a couple of times for press events where I’d been ushered down to one of their two private dining rooms, so had no concept of just how far back the ground floor dining room went. It goes back some way. And, even on a November Tuesday evening, when many of the neighbouring restaurants were quiet or empty, nearly enough every seat was occupied and many of those were turned again during our supper.
To be fair, it’s a handsome room – think comfortable lounge as decorated by a stylish, well-heeled aunt – run by excellent staff (with a particular nod to the charming and witty Carlos). The mood is buzzy, happy and friendly and the whole venture is slick, assured and hugely efficient. They know how to keep the masses happy and the Festive Menu is no different. It’s good value – £55 for three generous courses – creative and thoroughly decent. It also comes with crackers which, as I write, remain intact on my desk. Look, I’m happy to preview some Christmas stuff, but with over a month to go, I’m not ready for a paper hat and a terrible joke just yet.
And so, glasses of Nyetimber in hand, we make our selections. On the other side of the table, Ballotine of Duck Parfait and Goose & Turkey Shepherd’s Pie are ordered. On mine, Stilton and Cheese Soufflé, and Mixed Grains with Baked Butternut. That’s partly because, hey, I like veg, but mostly because I’d had 400g of rib eye that lunchtime…
In the case of both starters, it was the nutty twists to the dishes that made them. The parfait came topped with a hazelnut crunch, a welcome bit of texture against the smooth, buttery pleasures of the liver, and the walnuts did similar good things to the (well-cooked, light, fluffy, very cheesy) soufflé. A positive start.
Mains did what they promised, in a generous portion. The pie will keep many an office Christmas lunch guest content this season, a fine, pleasantly rich bit of comfort eating. The squash is dotted with feta, cranberries and sesame, all underscored with harissa for a little lick of pleasing warmth. It’s a very pleasing thing all around, frankly.
Puds, from a list of crowd pleasers, were also nicely judged. Across the table – apparently going fully on-brand for the night – Christmas pud ticked most of the required boxes. It’s not the best Christmas pud we’ve ever tried but it’s far, far from the worst.
I opted for something called The Polar Bear, a mix of sharp clementine sorbet, and some actual chunks of fruit, in a white chocolate casing, on a curiously addictive “snow”, that morphs from powder to cream under the pressure of a spoon. It’s a very sweet finish, a little too much for me these days, but 20-something me would have lapped it up, sleep and teeth be damned. There are a lot of Christmas partygoers who will go crazy for it too.
As I nursed the remains of the Nyetimber and watched several of the tables turn yet again, I had to admire quite what The Ivy has achieved and, particularly, what it’s maintained during a cost-of-living crisis. It’s a machine. That’s not an insult, by the way. This is mass hospitality at its absolute mainstream best, where you go out happier than you came in, your belly comfortably full of well-cooked, well-priced food. I won’t be rushing back any time soon… but nor would I complain if a friend or family member told me we were heading to The Ivy. Utterly dependable and an utterly positive experience.
The festive menu is three courses, £55, from 6:30 pm until close.
The Ivy Market Grill
1a Henrietta Street