Saving grace: the front of house staff at Ashburn SW7 are first-class; unfortunately, they’re the only high point. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer
Thinking of grabbing a meal at this airport hotel? Be prepared for a very bumpy ride…
Ashburn SW7, Inside the Holiday Inn, 97 Cromwell Road, London SW7 4DN (0871 942 9100). Starters £6-£14; mains £13-£23.50; desserts £6.95; wines from £24.50
I receive an email. It says: “Hi Jay. Hope you are well. We have opened our new restaurant Ashburn SW7 in our hotel recently and was wondering if someone from your food review team would be interested in a dining experience to do a review of our offerings and facilities.” My eye scans down to the bottom. It’s from the development chef of the Holiday Inn on London’s Cromwell Road.
I convene a meeting of the review team. There we sit: Me, myself, my ego and I. There is an early consensus that the likelihood of finding a good meal at a Holiday Inn is vanishingly small. I, however, make a robust point. Is it not the height of blunt snobbery to assume that such a place couldn’t serve great food? After all the chef emailed a request that we send one of our number, and why would he do so unless he thought it deserved it? He literally asked for it. My ego nods in agreement.There’s another point. For the most part this column reviews restaurants we choose to visit or not. But there’s another kind, the sort we end up in not out of choice but expediency. We go because we need something to eat and this is the best available option. A quick glance at the map told me this particular Holiday Inn was, for many of its guests, an airport hotel, located beyond the messiest of central London’s traffic with a straight run out to Heathrow. A lot of people would be staying there because they had to, with an evening to kill before getting on a plane and ending up somewhere more interesting. Why shouldn’t this captive audience be fed well?
It is indeed an airport hotel. The Singapore Airlines cabin crew are boarding a coach as I arrive, and inside the marble-slabbed lobby is dominated by the stutter and groan of aged wheelie cases being dragged to their resting place. The restaurant is a carved-off space up a couple of stairs to one side, dominated by faux bare-brick columns, faux-wood floors and an air of foetid despondency. Men sit alone, with 250ml buckets of wine, pawing at iPads and fumbling absent-mindedly for chips served in mini-chip pan fryers.
Take the “classic” caesar salad. Please, I beg you. Take it. This one includes strands of sweaty undercooked bacon, and half an overly boiled egg with a thick, dark-green ring around the yolk of a sort that comes from overboiling. Nobody in the kitchen cut that egg open and thought: “No, let’s try again.” The leaves are torn into tiny pieces, the dressing tastes of emulsifiers and looped through it all are silvery boquerones or pickled anchovies which have no business being there. (Salted anchovies perhaps, but there should be enough in the Worcestershire sauce which should be in the dressing.) It costs £11.
Salt-and-pepper squid turns up looking like badly made goujons of fish that have only just been emptied out of a freezer bag bought on Facebook Marketplace. The heavy breadcrumb shell falls off to reveal half centimetre-thick pieces of chewy squid. A “garlic aioli” is stiff and yellow and tastes only of acidity and profit margin. Bang goes another £9.
There’s a couple of dishes from across Asia among the mains. I wonder hopefully whether someone in the kitchen has been allowed to cook from within their own culinary tradition. Hmmm. The beef rendang, advertised as being made with “exotic spices”, is a mud-coloured slippery splatter of a stew, with a blunt hint of tired spice. (For a good version try the one from Enak Enak at Herne Hill market most Sundays. It’s cooked down with cow’s foot and allowed to caramelise on the bottom as it should.) Much worse are seabass fillets, which manage to be both overcooked and have floppy undercooked skin. Alongside is a coffin of crushed potatoes with raw onion, which looks like it has just been turned out of an enamel bowl. The splodges of salsa verde are astringent and harsh. A bowl of chips is just so much blisteringly hot but undercooked potato.
Unyielding finish: ‘an apple tatin skitters about the plate when I try to cut in’. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer
I went to a Holiday Inn and had a shocking meal. I opened the barrel and shot all the fish. But the fact remains: there are too many barrels out there and many more fish in need of shooting. Money has been spent here on the room, staff and ingredients. The result could, if anybody cared enough, be good. But clearly nobody has either the talent or the basic good manners to see to it. The development chef, who I’ve been sparing enough not to name, may regret sending that email. My review team says he bloody should.