Monday, 17 March 2014

If you think food is food is food – think again

Utterly divine Yorkies and filling
It’s a fairly familiar moan of mine that here in the UK, far too few people really rate food highly and instead, treat it essentially as straightforward fuel, rather than one of life’s great pleasures.

A pleasure, incidentally, that taken with a dose of seriousness, would almost certainly be healthier for you than the food-as-fuel attitude that drives the punters in their millions into the supermarket ready-meal aisles for supplies of ping food.

And the same attitude reveals itself in other ways too: for instance, when people suggest that there’s no point in paying the kind of money a top-quality restaurant will charge, because, after all, ‘food is just food’.

Well no, it really isn’t.

On Friday night, with a trip to the theatre in the offing, we needed food first.

Now The Other Half and I generally like to avoid chains and franchises, and most certainly what would be called fast food joints.

When you’ve got two hours to fill, you might as well sit down and enjoy something decent.

Since we were heading to Shaftsbury Avenue, I had been considering where to eat in that vicinity. But I was struggling.

We thought about a Chinese – how about the legendary Poons, for instance?

It was agreed that that sounded like a good idea, but then I discovered that that establishment has gone the way of all flesh.

Soho is not what it once was – changing as developers move in: and for the worse, in my opinion.

We ummed and ahhed, and I trawled the internet looking for anything with consistently decent reviews, but all without finding anything remotely inspiring.

In the end, I tried out a rather different idea on The Other Half: what about an early dinner down the road at The Gilbert Scott, and a cab to the theatre after?

He readily agreed – which pleased me, since I’ve been dying for a chance to return since my own first visit 15 months ago for the set lunch, and also wanted to introduce him to this rather special place.

It would, rather obviously, be more expensive than we’d expect to pay if we’d stuck with the idea of dining nearer the theatre.

So what do you get for spending all that extra filthy lucre?

Well, you get a very great deal.

To start with, though, it’s worth pointing out that most middle-range restaurants are not cheap.

Yet what you will frequently find is that, if one course is good, the others won’t match it for standard.

What you get at top restaurants is, in essence, simple: flawless cooking all the way through.

The Gilbert Scott is no exception.

Arriving a little early on Friday, as the team was still having its pre-service meeting, we sat in the bar for cocktails – a wonderful, refreshing rhubarb and ginger sour (with vodka) for me – and popcorn.

Now popcorn is ‘in’ at the moment. And popcorn is also not something that The Other Half likes. But this was just wonderful – and I was far from being alone in chucking it into my mouth.

Not that this was just any old popcorn, mind, but very carefully flavoured. I couldn’t quite work out what the subtle smokiness was – fortunately, chef Nick Ward later explained to me that they cook it with smoked butter from their salmon supplier.

So, what was first up for dinner itself?

In an exception to any previous experience, we both had the same.

To start with, a Yorkshire fishcake with lavabread mayonnaise, and topped with a divine little sprig of ever-so-fresh herbs (chervil, dill and chives) that was far more than a careless garnish, but added a glorious bitterness to the gentle sweetness of the fishcake itself.

For our mains, it was wild pigeon, roasted with tiny onions and mushrooms, and lardons, in a truly voluptuous gravy, and poured into individual Yorkshire puddings at the table.

Now that’s great restaurant threatre, of course, but it also ensures that the pudding is as crisp as possible when it reaches the diner.

Did I say “crisp”?

Now I don't consider myself bad at Yorkies, but I have never tasted one so good – and nor had that thoroughbred Tyke himself, The Other Half. Neither, should it be added, had I ever tasted such tender pigeon.

On the side, we opted for white tenderstem broccoli and carrots cooked in tarragon and star anise.

Both were cooked to perfection – none of that ‘al dente’ means almost-raw nonsense, while the carrots were perfectly complimented by the tarragon and the warmth of the star anise.

We didn’t have the time to sit and digest, and then order a dessert – but I know that we’d both have opted for Yorkshire rhubarb posset, if we had had that time.

The Other Half could see a regional theme here that he rather liked.

In the last year or so, we’ve finally sussed that, in really good restaurants, ordering a glass of wine doesn't simply translate as the house white or red, so we picked a good white for the fishcakes and a good red for the pigeon.

The former was a Riesling ‘Brauneberger Juffer’, Kabinett, Paulinshof, from Germany’s Mosel, while the latter was a Côte du Rhône, Domaine Charvin, from France.

The Riesling in particular was superb – great bouquet, great length, great taste. It’s the same wine I’d enjoyed on my previous visit, and it was most gratifying to find that The Other Half was really impressed with it too.

The service was exemplary: friendly, attentive but never intrusive.

The dining room is a pleasure in itself.

It probably doesn’t need pointing out that we will be returning – and recommending it highly to all and sundry.

Next time, I want longer – not least because the menu itself is worth browsing over at leisure before you even get down to eating.

The food, as you’ll probably have gathered, is not the kind of obviously French-influenced cuisine that has blossomed in high-end British restaurants under the tutelage and influence of the Rouxs and Raymond Blanc, and which has massively improved at least some of the country’s restaurant scene.

But then again, Marcus Wareing, who designed the menus for the Gilbert Scott, is himself immersed in what Michel Roux Jr would call “The Classics”.

It is a menu, though, that makes you aware and proud of our British food heritage – and when such food is done like this, it is as good as anything else.

It will equally need little pointing out that it was all rather more expensive than it would have been if we had trawled around the Shaftsbury Avenue area and simply found somewhere – anywhere! – to eat.

But I hope that what I’ve done here is to illustrate exactly why, in food terms, you really do get what you pay for.

I still remember – without needing to look it up – what I ate on that first visit to the Gilbert Scott, over a year ago. I cannot recall what I ate at a small restaurant near Charing Cross just two months ago on our last visit to the theatre.

I rather doubt that either us of will find this meal to have been instantly forgettable.

And that really should tell you something.

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