They say that at any given time in London you are within seven feet of a rat. My best friends say they suspect that at any given time I’m within seven feet of a snack. My love of food equals my passion for art, and both nourish me in their separate ways. One of the many truly wonderful things about living in London is its amazing ability to cater not only to art lovers and foodies but to combine the two, allowing you to justify indulging in both through the excuse of one or the other.
The Friends’ lounge at the Royal Academy does this in an elegant, quiet way and creates a haven of demure paintings, coffee and Chelsea buns within its historic confines. Bethnal Green’s Gallery Café blends live music, art and food in an atmosphere of cheery togetherness, much like the café Tina We Salute You in Dalston.
The restaurant Sketch, on the other hand, seeks to offer its visitors a very different experience, merging show-stopping contemporary art with mind-blowingly-priced haute cuisine. The Conduit Street restaurant commissions site-specific video pieces from artists and collectives and displays their work on screens around the top of their subterranean Gallery dining hall. It’s a fabulous space, its high ceiling putting sufficient distance between the diners and the moving images to get a great view, no matter where you sit.
When I visited the design team Silent Studio’s London Revolve was being shown, which consisted of pieced together photographs of London’s skyline revolving slowly around the room, as if the restaurant itself were windowed and turning. It seems that this was a London variation on the 2007 work the Studio created for Sketch, Revolutions, in which diners were taken on a journey around the world, moving from London to the Arctic through Paris and the Nevada Desert. The intention then was to make Sketch the first rotating restaurant in London (and most probably the first restaurant that could cross continents between your main course and dessert).
When you’re viewing the London section, however, the experience is less of rotating as of walking around a capsule of the London Eye, only without the drama of being high above the Thames. Nonetheless, it’s never a bad thing to be reminded of the varied skyline of the city, especially when working and commuting dulls your receptiveness to the view, and the piece certainly brought home that we couldn’t have been anywhere else but in London at that moment. The trouble is that after the first rotation of buildings, the impact of the piece is lost and you start trying to spot your office.
This was taking site-specific art to its logical conclusion, reflecting the outside of the restaurant within its walls, but it did little more than this. That’s the danger of combining art and food – you either need sufficient variation in what you are showing to last the length of a meal, or else you need to be able to eat as you wander around a variety of works. I suspect that had the work on display been a more eventful video installation the effect of eating underneath it would have been a more exciting experience.
With screens all around you this room could feel claustrophobic but the Sketch team has created such a sense of airy whiteness and contemporary luxury that you enter the space in the knowledge that this isn’t just about eating, it’s about the experience of eating at Sketch. Even the bathrooms are an experience here, with each facility encased in individual white pods in a surreal vaulted room.
The food is beautiful here too, each course a masterpiece of carefully composed ingredients. Dessert in particular was spectacular; we shared a layered chocolate concoction with a tiny mound of ice-cream and praline on the side and lamented that the portion amounted to only a couple of mouthfuls each. And that’s the trouble with Sketch, the portion sizes are so small and the prices so high that you leave unsatisfied, and you end up buying a pasty on the way home. Whilst this is the case with many trendy London restaurants, the dual downside here is that the average art lover is priced out of viewing interesting, regularly updated site-specific art that would otherwise be a pleasure to keep checking up on.
Sketch’s engagement with its space and the range of artist commissions that keep the Gallery restaurant fresh is certainly to be lauded and the concept is a great one. It would be wonderful to see more collaboration between chefs and artists, but it should be about filling the senses with wonder and enthusing the taste buds as much as the eyes. At the end of the day, there really is nothing better than interesting, thought-provoking art and a full belly.
All images courtesy sketch.