Simon Wittenberg goes à la carte for lunch at the Farringdon branch of the long-established Vivat Bacchus restaurant group.
For a bit of background, Vivat Bacchus, which means “Long live the god of wine”, offers South African cuisine at two restaurants in London. The Farringdon branch was opened in 2004, with the London Bridge (SE1) eatery, which has a slightly different take on the menu, arriving afterwards in July 2008.
The business is owned by the South African restauranteurs Gerrie Knoetze and Neleen Strauss (who also has the High Timber Restaurant near Blackfriars in his portfolio).
The subject of our visit was the long-established Farringdon site, which is on the cusp of celebrating its twenty-year anniversary.
It’s located within a non-descript commercial office block on the corner of Farringdon Street and Charterhouse Street in the EC4A postcode, which means it’s quite easy to miss as a passer-by, especially if you’re not looking out for the A-board on the pavement.
The two-floor Vivat Bacchus restaurant has the capacity to seat over 100 people at any one time in its long and relatively narrow space, where the furnishings come with few hints and touches readily associated with South Africa. It’s therefore left to the steak and wine to do the talking.
Vivat Bacchus is open Monday to Friday from 12:00 onwards, shutting just before midnight, so this eatery caters largely for those working in the area rather than being one targeting the leisure or walk-in crowd.
We visited early on a Friday afternoon, and with many people now home-based at the end of the week in the new hybrid age, it was relatively quiet, with just a sprinkling of the low and high wooden tables occupied by those enjoying a leisurely meal in a professional capacity.
My other half and I sat next to the window overlooking the passing traffic and the remnants of the now-derelict Smithfield market, so this is not a restaurant for those in search of a scenic view.
Comfortably seated, it was time to peruse the latest menu introduced around three weeks prior to our visit, and individual dietary requirements are well catered for.
It’s not an extensive line-up, but there’s certainly enough to tantalise the taste buds. There are some nibbles, such as biltong, mixed olives and salted almonds, for those who like to have an aperitif before embarking on the starters.
There are eight “Small Plates” to choose from, with meat and fish dishes featured in this section of the à la carte. Apart from the gastronomy and extensive wine list, including bottles from Stellenbosch in the Western Cape province of South Africa, one of the unique selling points of Vivat Bacchus is its “Cheese Room”, so a cheese board is on offer for this course and for dessert.
The Cheese Room, which can be found at the top of the restaurant opposite the open kitchen, is more akin to a booth, so is a touch “over-marketed” for those expecting a large walk-in area that you would find in the world of whisky, for instance.
Chilled at a constant temperature of 10 degrees centigrade, there are several varieties to choose your preferred 40g portions, and they have largely been sourced from UK-based producers.
For my opening course, I headed for the soft and oozing Burrata, where the savoury, creamy interior combined beautifully with the sweet beetroot and coconut purée, and where the garnish was formed of small pieces of crushed hazelnut and a thin toast crisp (£11).
It was a superb opening dish. My other half decided on the equally flavoursome vegan Cajun spiced cauliflower with tartare sauce and rocket salad (£9.95).
The cauliflower had a pleasant hint of smokiness to it, whilst the lettuce leaves were also interspersed with tiny sweet teardrop-shaped Roquito peppers from Peru, finishing off the dish nicely and giving it an added hint of colour.
As you would expect with a menu orientated around South African delicacies, steak forms one of the main options, and my dining partner opted for the more substantial 250g sirloin (£29) rather than a thinner flat iron cut.
Cooked medium rare and served with a non-dairy barbecue-type sauce, this was a nicely prepared and succulent dish, but the plate looked quite empty, so sides are needed here. We opted for the triple-cooked chips, beetroot, and tenderstem broccoli – priced at £4.50 each.
For those who are less keen on steak, the mains section of the menu also features chicken, fish and vegetarian dishes, so there really is something for everyone. I settled on the special of the day – a crispy escalope of Scottish salmon for £23.95 – a posh and carnivorous term for a pretty bog-standard fillet that you would find in the supermarket fridges.
Although it was nice enough, it wasn’t massively inspirational, despite the more upmarket name. The fish was coated in a light dusting of parmesan cheese and was served with al dente strands of courgette “spaghetti” with an oily pesto sauce and cherry tomato halves.
It has to be said that the portions are generous in size at Vivat Bacchus, so there’s no chance of leaving hungry, and after the substantial starters and mains, we had just enough room to sample some delicacies from the dessert menu.
At this point, there’s the choice to go savoury or sweet because of the aforementioned Cheese Room, but both my other half and I went for the latter in the form of a rich vegan chocolate fondant with salted caramel ice cream (£7.15), and the Amarula crème brûlée (£8.25), which had a pleasingly subtle alcoholic kick to it, and a thick sugary crust.
Other delicacies on offer include cheesecake, sticky toffee pudding, and a liqueur.
Having personally visited South Africa, Vivat Bacchus delivers warm hospitality with efficient and friendly service.
However, the restaurant lacks atmosphere and, even though it is not trying to be “fussy” or was looking to bring any intricate elements to the dining experience, for the price charged and the type of clientele visiting, creased and badly cut paper menus, and cheap napkins, do little to make a lasting impression.
In summary, Vivat Bacchus is reminiscent of what you would find with an American steakhouse chain in terms of ambience and the level of cuisine rather than painting a picture of what South Africa does best in terms of its vineyards and gastronomy.
However, with that being said, if you’re after some hearty and tasty food, a good steak, plenty of cheese, and a plethora of wine options for lunch or dinner during the working week, then this is certainly the place to be.
Vivat Bacchus – Where and How?
For more information or to make a reservation at the Vivat Bacchus restaurants, visit https://vivatbacchus.co.uk.
See photos of Vivat Bacchus and what we had to eat on the Luxurious Magazine Instagram page.
Read more restaurant reviews, guides and features here.