The Capital - 4/5
We've come for the tasting menu, with its 'five wine flight' - though why it's meant to be airborne is beyond me. We're four hungry boys, and some of the à la carte choices on Eric Chavot's menu look scrumptious: perhaps we could bung them into the dégustation?
'But of course,' purrs the waitress. 'I will send the sommelier.' He glides across - perhaps it will be like flying. Could he choose some wines for the extra courses? A smile flickers. 'Naturally, sir. I'll look after you.'
40 covers - and four sommeliers - in a fancy hotel. At the next door table, a tweeded young fogey is cooing at his Ribena-faced great uncle and blustering about income tax. His face displays an earnest wish to see his dinner date dead and a robust inheritance (taxed or not) come his way. An obstreperous WASP two tables down glares silently at his blonde partner, who returns the steely stare from behind her diamonds. It's Saturday, but we're wearing suits; C has even plumped for red braces and The Old School Tie. What is it about this place?
Both food and chef at The Capital are very French. But Chavot has updated everything, so while we have frogs' legs, foie gras and lamb, they're deep-fried with curried ricotta gnocchi, Kilner jarred with passion fruit, and Maghrebised with couscous respectively. It's more hip and happening than, say, Le Gavroche, which holds its truffles-Bresse-chicken-foie-gras-langoustines-and-caviar to its chest, like a lover's bosom. That, and the fact that five courses with matching wines are about £135 here - cheap for two Michelin stars in SW3 - while The Capital's three-course lunch, at £29.50, is the best deal in the... capital. Including Wetherspoon's post-3pm beer 'n' burger.
Bread is an unpromising woolly affair. But with house champagne comes an amuse that does what it, what all amuses should. A creamy shot of cucumber gazpacho with tuna tartare cleanses and enlivens and leaves us excited, expectant, refreshed. Then a single seared scallop with bulls-eye sweetcorn vélouté, crackling with popcorn, envelops the mouth in autumn flavours straight out of Keats.
Frog thigh tears blissfully away from graphite-thin bone, with a Gruyère foam R incontrovertibly pronounces 'foamy'. After a wait, the foie gras arrives lukewarm, piled in its dinky jar, criss-crossed by crostini, with an ironic teaspoon of Malibu jelly. Le fatty liver is virtually obligatory in a place like this, but this one's oversweet with the exotic fruiting, and it doesn't help that we're expected to eat it with miniature shovels (not pictured). No matter: sublime crab lasagne follows, while exactingly fried John Dory is dished up with white, peasanty beans and a sharp slick of pimento sauce.
The night's best dish - as you might hope - is signature, and Eric's been cooking it since his days at the bucket-reachingly named Interlude de Chavot. Squid is stuffed with rabbit forcemeat and wrapped in sliced pancetta, with roast rabbit saddle, fried rabbit liver and deep-fried calamari. The sauce is heady with tomatoes, thyme and garlic, transformed by long French bubblings of veal bones and demi-glace. It's an inspired pairing: gummy, yielding white rabbit and flash-cooked tender squid, fluffed by the sexy, sunny sauce.
Lamb fillet appears, couscoused, cumined and raisiny, with a black pudding spring roll. A spicy St Emilion - two years past its best, according to Decanter - is a gutsy counterpoint. T, who was ten when the port was bottled, is listening while R squeals favourably about the cheese; but this board isn't, in fact, in great shape. Perhaps Bernard Antony is having supplier trouble this week: Brillat-Savarin is just extra-creamy Dairylea - perhaps normal - but a leathery Morbier still needs time and a Beaufort is positively chalky. None justifies a £12 supplement. Amongst the puddings: a monotone champagne baba with good apple sorbet; a caramel and ginger tart, ideal for insulating arteries; and jasmine and jivara jelly, with a banana ice cream so pregnant with that fruit, it's like tasting it for the first time.
The hour's late, the room's deserted. Great Uncle Ribena wheezed off a while ago, his mini-me scurrying behind.
The bill thuds to the table like a dropped coffin. Slowly, gingerly, we unfold it.
Eye-watering. Three extra courses, three extra glasses: three hundred and fifty extra pounds. The Capital's tasting menu, which a friend declared to be 'a steal,' has actually become a form of stealing. Worse, we've already quaffed and scoffed our way through every drop, every morsel. It's too late. What are we to do?
Cough up, of course; and we punch in our PINs with trembling fingers. It was our own stupid fault to give that smooth sommelier free rein over the bill and evening. Lesson learned, though; and it was still a lovely dinner. Menus, it seems, are just like ski slopes: deviate at your peril.
The Capital, 22 Basil Street, London SW3
Tel. +44 (0)20 7589 5171
Final bill: £1109.24 (£277.31 a head)
Five-course tasting menu with 'five wine flight': £147 including service.
Perrier-Jouet NV (I seem to remember)
2006 Albarino A20 Rais Baixas
2004 Pinot Grigio, Collio Schiopetto, Friuli-Venezia Guilia
2004 Gewurztraminer, St Hippolyte, Marcel Deiss, Alsace
2007 Gruner Veltliner, Schloss Gobelsburg, Renner, Kamptal
2006 Puligny-Montrachet, V. Vignes, Vincent Girardin, Burgundy
2002 Nuits-St-Georges, V. Vignes, D. Rion et Fils, Burgundy
2001 St Emilion Grand Cru, Chateau Haut-Brisson, Bordeaux
1995 Port, LBV Niepoort
2005 Chateu Belingard, Monbazillac, SW France
Browns – 2/5
I’m back home for a wedding. It’s the night before the day, and about 20 of us have swelled this glassy back room. The 14-strong Browns franchise (est. 1973) is owned by titanic conglomerate Mitchells & Butlers, who’ve retained the ungrammatical name, the Cheers-esque logo and, alas, the uninspiring clutch of dishes. Groups like ours choose from the ‘Varsity Menu’ in an ‘institution’ declared, by the Good Food Guide of all places, to be ‘on a par with the Bodleian’. A strange treble allusion; though the Oxford outpost in fact looks remarkably similar to this northernmost one, with its bistro-y air, magnolia walls and leather, its distressed flooring and, currently, distressed diners.
Argh, the service! A party this size needs ongoing attention, but they dumped us in our weird conservatory an hour ago with nothing except a steadily diminishing phalanx of wine bottles. Copies of the aforementioned Varsity Menu were waiting for us on the tables. It is a list of consummate unoriginality, with carrot soup, cannelloni (unappetisingly dubbed ‘stuffed pasta’), grilled chicken… smoked trout salad… zzzzz…
At last, a lone waiter floats over to take down some orders. He moves with glacial velocity around customers who, by now, are distinctly squiffy.
Duck and pistachio terrine is a greasy splat of gluey, gooey meatpulp, the colour of dried blood, polka dotted with lurid pistachio kernels. It’s pointlessly splashed with pesto, and half of it sits on top of out-of-season, air-freighted asparagus. ‘Toasted ciabatta’ might be just that, although I fancy its crispness stems from the fact it’s utterly stale. Onion and orange marmalade doesn’t taste faintly of orange, but does lift the terrine somewhat. A relative-to-be pronounces thin but richly coloured carrot soup ‘flavourless’. Slow-roasted peppers (can any dish make the heart sink lower?) are as good as peppers, slow-roasted or not, can ever be – not very.
So far, so depressing. But the wine sure is flowing, and there’s a convivial, boisterous atmosphere even if Browns has done little to create it. Sad, prosaic-sounding ‘Main Dishes’ arrive. Guinea fowl ‘coq au vin style’ is a generous, tender portion of breast and leg, with good mashed potato and a mute, insipid sauce. No vegetables, nor were they on the menu: the bird needs greenery! ‘Roast Mediterranean vegetable tart’ (what a eureka moment that must have been!) is dazzlingly dull, edible in the way All-Bran is edible, calculated squarely to pacify the maximum number of people including vegetarians, with a flavour as flat and sparse as a nuclear test site.
Practically everyone else has ‘Browns steak frites,’ a listing that takes absent apostrophes to newly maddening depths. The meat emerges with those icky pats of fatty, semi-liquid flavoured butter, mealy, defrosted cash-and-carry chips and a few bits of watercress. In a restaurant like this, with the right equipment, cooking steak is as easy as toast. But the kitchen didn’t salt these first, nor was the grill hot enough to sear and seal the beef. No-one seems to mind while they have enough red to wash it down, and the novelty of so many people, new and familiar, is lifting the evening like helium. I wonder, though, if we’d be this forgiving were tonight a smaller, less relaxed party – where the numbers and the occasion hadn’t made it all so jovial.
By the time puddings arrive, the streets are spattered with rain and a chill has gripped the night, but who cares while the corks go ‘pluck!’ Profiteroles with chocolate sauce, pumped with an aerosolled cream, are pre-frozen, bland as gruel. Atop them, ‘warm Belgium [sic] chocolate sauce’ is a splurted frenzy of E-numbers and saccharine junk. Sticky toffee pudding is cloyingly oversweet, though nobody seems surprised.
But throughout, despite everything, we’re a happy, loud and laughing group. Plates are largely cleared. The restaurant isn’t a bad choice for numbers like this; although when the bill arrives, the damage is more than feels warranted. People change seats and talk excitedly about family, friends and all tomorrow’s parties – anything, it seems, but the food. Perhaps that’s intentional. Browns, which is apparently content with a menu devoid of invention, and with catering seemingly prepared and distributed by lobotomised sleepwalkers, might well prefer it if customers don’t worry too much about what they’re eating. Oh well: its loss. And the wedding was brilliant, anyway.
Browns, 131-133 George St, Edinburgh EH2
Tel. +44 (0)131 225 4442
Dinner for 19, excluding drinks and service, costs £427 (£40 a head all in).
St. John – 5/5
Pictures to follow
Edward Gibbon believed that of all the degeneracies that caused the messy decline and fall of the Roman Empire, one stood out in particular. The Romans, he felt, lost the mental connection between bleating, mooing beasts on the hillside and the meat they ate at their Dionysian orgies. Chaos and collapse ensued. Amidst all the general doomsaying today, it’s good to see Fergus Henderson doing his bit at St. John to remind diners that every time you eat a piece of meat, something has had to die.
This sobering fact is invariably in evidence here. Half-way through the meal, with a bit of fanfare, the kitchen doors fly open and a whole, prostrate suckling pig, glinting amber under the halogens, is lifted to the fifteen-strong table next door. With a strange scratching sound, it is briskly decapitated, and its head presented face-up, like an Aztec sacrifice, to the alpha male. The chap doesn’t hesitate in slicing off the little porky nose and, smacking his lips, loudly announces to all who’ll listen that it’s ‘bloody marvellous’.
Ghastly, ug-grunting nonsense? Perhaps. But the restaurant has treated the pig with huge respect, showcasing its young, melting glory. This is, of course, a world away from the wretched treatment most of its kin suffer nowadays, pulped into saveloys or tinned ravioli filling. The very sight of it makes me salivate: bloody marvellous is doubtless what it is.
But I’m running ahead of myself.
A London institution, St. John, and it’s easy to see why. The former smokehouse opposite Smithfield has nourished a reputation, over 14 careful years, for serving weird but delicious things few other chefs will touch: chitterlings, brain, spleen, squirrel. ‘Grouse’ reads a terse item on the menu, ‘Pig on toast’ another. Eat your primate heart out, Mr Gibbon.
You can still sense the dilapidation that clung here when Henderson arrived. Upstairs used to be the offices of the lamentably folded Marxism Today - yesterday’s news, you might say - and the space hosted squatters and ravers before its restaurant reincarnation. A shouting bar, filled with brays and bangs, blasts you on arrival; the restaurant itself is up some iron stairs and is marginally – though not much – more secluded. The white, undecorated walls offer no sound insulation at all: this is a noisy place to eat.
The waitress is in a strop about something. Rubied lips pursed, nostrils flaring, eyes like a dictator’s. Though on the small side, she towers and glowers in her whites; the costume, apparently, is a nod to the smokehouse origins. Quailing, I choose the second cheapest bottle of red and she wheels round with robotic precision.
Signature bone marrow with parsley salad arrives, and is utterly glorious. Four hacked bits of calf bone, baked at a diamond-melting heat, with hot sourdough, a pile of coarse sea salt and a salad of flat leaf parsley with rounds of spring onion. With the help of a lobster fork, the marrow globs out on the toast, rich, jellied and steaming, and marries perfectly with the hot crunch of toast and the fragrant grassiness of the salad. The stuff is so rich it makes foie gras look like lemon juice: the other elements triumphantly counterbalance this cloying power. C has potted prawn and cabbage salad: this doesn’t work quite as well, underseasoned and lacking the punchy flavours of the bone marrow, but it has crunch and a good butteriness from the prawns. Smoked haddock and bacon soup is a lovely dish that invokes the encroaching colder months, thick, smokey and warming, with bits of chewy bacon and a hearty potato backdrop.
Delightful starters, we concur above the clatter. Equally good is C’s roast belly of Middle White, an under-used and under-appreciated breed of pig. The cut is more tender and flavoursome than fillet could ever be, with a glorious snap of crackling. R’s calf liver is the dish of the evening: perfectly cooked with a sweet, internal rosiness, in a thick reduction and carrying nubby lentils for bite. Arbroath smokies in cream sauce are a wee bit overdone on their mashed potato bed, but they’re certainly smoky smokies, and tasty for it.
‘Restaurants should not be about moments,’ Henderson once said. He meant, of course, that they should be immune (just imagine!) to fads and crazes, and concentrate solely on good food. St. John is a moment, though. A languid moment that encapsulates the happy, unbroken journey from farm to plate, or nose to tail.
But a Proustian moment we would rather forget now follows. After their 15-minute waiting time, half a dozen madeleines appear, and their lauded reputation here is at once bewildering. Pasty and pastey, with a slight greasiness, they’re far too hot – a sign, admittedly, that they’re freshly baked, but we knew this anyway from the delay needed to serve them. They literally cake the mouth. Blackcurrant jelly and shortbread is sharp and magnificent, though: a sublimely refreshing and summery dish after the heaviness of the saucing, the pigfat, the bread. C has a decent selection of British cheeses; R finishes his treacle tart to the crumb. By this stage, we’ve even graduated (all part of the same ‘moment,’ you see) to the third-cheapest bottle of red.
What a fantastic place this is. English to its steaming heart, beating out life and love of good food. Unique, boisterous and totally unpretentious, it remains one of the most original places to eat in London, and the restaurant I’ll take visitors to from now on. It’s a rare credit, incidentally, to Restaurant magazine’s often incomprehensible list of the World’s Top 50 Restaurants, published annually to general bewilderment, which this year placed St. John at number 16. Pricing is very fair for plates of such quality and invention. Stuff Gibbon: civilisation is safe with Henderson.
St. John, 26 St. John Street, London EC1
Tel. +44 (0)20 7251 0848
Dinner for three, excluding drinks and service, costs £110
Wines: Domaine la Prade Mari ‘Secret de Fontenille’ Minervois 2006 (£17.70)
Coteaux du Languedoc Domaine de la Triballe 2006 (£19.00)