Jhe Lalee is a bit of a confusing place. As in, after my visit in early spring, I spent several weeks confused as to how I feel about this. Nestled in the notoriously posh Belgravia district, the restaurant is owned by the Cadogan, a notoriously posh hotel that welcomes visitors with a tartan doorman and has a private park accessible only to hotel guests with a key card (a feature that probably annoyed me more than anything, as someone who cares deeply about public access to green spaces and just wanted to sit in the park before their meal – really, guys ?)
The restaurant is said to have been inspired by one of Cadogan’s former residents, British socialite Lillie Langtry. Langtry, who was also an actor and producer, has quite a rich and exciting history. She rubbed shoulders with royalty far beyond her shoulders, having conducted business with Albert Edward, who later became King Edward VII; the Earl of Shrewsbury; and Prince Louis of Battenberg, who became Admiral of the Fleet Louis Alexander Mountbatten – Prince Philip’s maternal grandfather.
Fun fact: you might have seen her face too if you’ve ever bought a pear soap bar from TK Maxx, as she was the first woman to endorse a commercial product. Langtry is also said to have been the inspiration for the character of Irene Adler in Sherlock Holmes, and had a fictional theater named after her, located on Mr Burns’ estate, in an episode of The simpsons.
As you’d expect, modeling a restaurant after someone with such an illustrious reputation comes with high expectations. The Lalee promises “sophisticated European cuisine reflecting the refined tastes that appealed to Lillie on her travels”. So when I finally stopped worrying about The Cadogan closing the park to non-guests, I walked into The Lalee expecting nothing less than greatness.
But aside from the chandelier that hangs imperiously above the dining room, the Lalee’s interior looks anything but grand. There are art deco beveled mirrors alongside chairs with floral jacquard backs as well as leather chairs and single-legged tables that wobble slightly. However any reservations about the decor pop out of my head when an amazingly handsome waiter tells me he will look after me tonight and what a lovely evening we are having, can I bring you a drink while you wait for your guest ?
Glancing at the cocktail list, I ask my charm-your-socks server to recommend a drink and he brings me back the “Rome-groni”, a coffee-infused negroni so strong my eyelids squirm. open at the first taste and I can’t help exclaiming: “Cor!” He laughs and tells me to take my time because it’s a “cocktail to sip”, as if he thinks I’m about to swallow it and order three more.
The cocktails are well worth the £15 price tag, then. My guest arrives and we start ordering starters and main courses, particularly intrigued by the promise of table theater with the Caesar salad. A twice-baked Montgomery cheese soufflé caught our eye, as did a burrata and tomato salad (a combination that can’t hurt, if you don’t think too long about the carbon footprint of burrata). We’re foregoing the table-prep beef tartare for the lamb chops – which ends up being a mistake.
Starters are a treat and we quickly demolish the airy cheese soufflé and the brightly flavored tomatoes, their acidity tempered by the milky soft cheese. Easy-to-eat dishes, washed down with a deliciously chilled white wine suggested by The Lalee’s knowledgeable sommelier. Please don’t ask me the name of the wine – I suck at keeping wine records and my bar is admittedly set too low for someone who likes to review restaurants. Suffice to say that he descended easily and with pleasure.
A waiter comes with a somewhat rickety table to make the Caesar salad. He whips the garlic and anchovy vinaigrette before our eyes, tossing it into fairly large romaine lettuce leaves and crunchy croutons. All in all a delight to watch and eat, although I suspect the Dover Sole or Beef Tartare, the other two table-side dishes, may have created a more dramatic theatre.
But the lamb chops are where we were really disappointed: £28 for three tiny cuts of lamb. And I really mean tiny, they wouldn’t even have touched the outer edges of my palm. Small portions for disproportionate prices are always a risk one takes when dining in a hotel restaurant, but this took the biscuit.
Speaking of cookies, dessert time had come. A chocolate mousse with chocolate ice cream and a glass of tiramisu (which is no longer on the menu) completed our meals. The dessert menu threatened to be “outrageously sweet”, but I was happy to find that wasn’t the case – however, they didn’t blow me away either.
All in all, The Lalee is a perfectly pleasant place to stay if you’re passing through the area and have some of that sweet tourist dollar to spend. The cocktails are particularly good and I would probably order the whole menu of starters to share with the table rather than one of the main courses. But I can’t help but think that Langtry would have walked away from the obvious lack of glitz, glamor and scandal, no matter how insistent the restaurant is on using its brand.
The Lalee, 75 Sloane St, Chelsea, London SW1X 9SG | 020 8089 7070 | thelalee.co.uk