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Restaurant Review: Hawksmoor Seven Dials

Source: thehawksmoor.com via Hawksmoor on Pinterest

If top meat and a badass grill are all you need for a decent steakhouse, then Hawksmoor Seven Dials is absolutely superb.

Their Longhorn beef, supplied by The Ginger Pig and dry-aged for a minimum of 35 days, holds the sort of flavour that makes you lose control of bodily functions. Your eyes close, your face contorts to a gurn, and you moan and slobber like a zombie in sight of an attractive blonde named Barbara.

After the first bite, if you’re married, your spouse may ask the question “is that really necessary?” and you know without opening your eyes they’ll be looking at you with a mixture of amusement, embarrassment and scorn. Yet you can’t apologise because to do so would be to tell a lie. This beef is as good as beef gets; a producer of such juicy, voluptuous, carnivorous joy as cannot be described.

If your natural reaction to it is that of a stroke victim having his prostate examined, it’s something you can live with.

Of course the grill has a lot to do with provoking this response as well. I’m used to (and generally prefer) my steak being cooked on a Josper these days, its hellfire heat turning the meat’s exterior into glorious, crispy carbon.

But Hawksmoor’s charcoal-driven beast is just as effective despite its gentler persuasion. Where it can’t match the Josper for texture or retention of juices, it tops it through the flavour it imparts, the woody smoke of the char elevating the beef to even higher heights.

It’s just a pity really that I want my steakhouses to offer a bit more than that.

I’m not quite sure what it was that spoiled my meal at Hawksmoor Seven Dials. I left the restaurant feeling I’d had a fairly enjoyable experience but the more I think about it the more negative my feelings become. Yes, the 900g porterhouse my wife and I shared was awesome, and the bone marrow – wow! What a stunning example it was.* But almost everything else rankled.

First there was our waiter, presumably moonlighting from a job as a payment protection insurance salesman, who was so relentless in his efforts to sell us a starter you’d have thought his children’s lives depended on it.

Then there was the potted beef starter we eventually ordered to get him to go away and its Yorkshire puddings that had something of the Aunt Bessie about them. £8 for a jar of offcut meat, some onions and two circles of poorly risen batter – the beef was excellent but I didn’t feel like we got our money’s worth.

With the mains we had mushrooms: flaccid rounds of soot black which’d had all the life sweated out of them. They tasted of nothing at all. We had triple-cooked chips too – not the beef dripping chips we’d actually ordered – and they were so dry and saturated with fat they could’ve been used for kindling.

“If I didn’t know any better, I’d think these had been cooked from frozen,” I said, after trying a couple. They really were poor.

Even the steak couldn’t escape criticism, my wife declaring it to be too salty. I have a high tolerance for salt and thought the seasoning, while high, was just about acceptable. But she felt it really spoilt it.**

It was a while before we were able to attract a waiter’s attention, get them to clear the table and present us with the bill. The cost of brilliant steak and bone marrow, a decent bottle of wine and a fair dollop of disappointment was around £180, which didn’t feel the best value. Our outstanding a la carte lunch at The Ledbury the following day was only about £40 more expensive, to put it in context.

I think on the whole I actually prefer my local Gaucho to Hawksmoor Seven Dials. And that’s certainly not something I was expecting to say going in. While Gaucho’s steaks don’t bear comparison with Hawksmoor’s, they offer a far more complete experience than we got on this London visit. Through half a dozen meals I’ve never had a complaint about any of their side dishes.

Afterwards I took to Twitter to say the beef had been great but Hawksmoor is Championship standard versus the Premier League of Goodman. On reflection, given that Goodman Mayfair gave us a faultless steakhouse experience when we visited last year, I’d suggest the gulf is far bigger than that.

Hawksmoor (Seven Dials) on Urbanspoon

Food: 14.5/30

Service: 7/10

Dining Room: 2.5/5

Experience: 6.5/10

Overall score: 56/100 (Very Good)

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*Thanks to fellow blogger Mrs Petticoat (@MrsPetticoat) for the bone marrow recommendation.

**There were other irritations too, although once I hit my stride I think I just started being picky. As such, I’ll just mention them here in the footnotes:

The dining room reminded of the hall where I used to sit my music theory exams albeit with much poorer lighting conditions. Tables were heavily regimented and if the room hadn’t been packed I think it would’ve felt very cold. It was certainly buzzing and I reckon a lot of people probably like the stripped back, casual look they’ve gone for, but it wasn’t a room I personally felt comfortable in.

I also felt the steak knife looked cheap and rubbish. I know it’s only a small thing, but when I went to Goodman and saw the knives they have I thought “this is a place that means business”. At Hawksmoor Seven Dials the cutlery reminded me of a Beefeater, in that I immediately thought “even Beefeaters have better knives than this”. It didn’t make quite the same first impression.

Planning a gourmet break in London

Nothing ever seems to go right for me when I plan a gourmet holiday. Shops and markets are never open on the days I want them to be; restaurants are always booked up. I can’t count the number of times my schedule has been waylaid by mysterious ‘private functions’, which crop up with unnerving regularity whenever I dare to make a booking inquiry.

Have I told you that the queen ruined my honeymoon plans last year? Well, she did. We’d been planning to go to The Waterside Inn on night one ever since we got engaged and the whole week was arranged around it. So desperate were we to guarantee our table that I rang them up the very second the booking window opened to make sure we got in.

“I’m sorry sir, but the restaurant is closed that evening for a ‘private function’. Would you like to book for another day?”

Turned out the royal family had reserved it for some sort of celebration.* We were forced to reorganise the entire bloody week!

Impeded by the Crown

Naturally, as I shuffled hotels and restaurants around, more issues cropped up. We couldn’t get into Gordon Ramsay. Then we couldn’t get into Le Gavroche. I had no problems booking Alain Ducasse – which was always on the itinerary – but when I rang them up a few weeks beforehand to inform them of my wife’s dairy allergy they said they had no record of the booking at all!!

The guy at the end of the phone fortunately agreed it was the restaurant’s fault and sorted us a table anyway, but he didn’t manage to do so before my head exploded, splattering big gooey lumps of excitement and good will all over my bedroom wall.

The original plan had been to do all the country’s three-star Michelin restaurants in a week, in this order: The Waterside Inn, The Fat Duck, Gordon Ramsay and Alain Ducasse (with a night at The Dorchester).

After a month of headaches, we eventually settled for: Hibiscus, Goodman, The Waterside Inn and Alain Ducasse (with a night at The Dorchester). Not too shabby really, but a bit of a pain to cobble together.

Executive Deluxe Room at The Dorchester, Park Lane

We got there in the end – our executive deluxe room at The Dorchester

Annoyingly, I’ve been going through the exact same pain again as I try to set up another gourmet holiday in London this June. It’s gone like this:

We wanted to spend the last night with a room and dinner at The Ritz.

The Ritz was unavailable.

We booked a night at The Dorchester instead and tried to get into Le Gavroche.

Le Gavroche was unavailable.

I uttered the following phrase: “God this is irritating. Ah well, at least we won’t have a problem going back to Goodman – who books a steak house so far in advance?”

Goodman was unavailable.

I uttered the follo… actually, that probably doesn’t bear repeating.

I just seem to have no luck with these things; no luck at all. I know these places are popular, but when I go to book them as soon as is humanly possible, I’d expect to hit more often than not. It’s not like I’m trying to get into an El Bulli or a Next or somewhere where you might have to pay a few hundred quid on eBay in order to be sure of a reservation.

I know two different couples who are going to Le Gavroche in April and booked without a hitch. How is it they got in so easy? I expect the Jubilee has something to do with it. Yet again I’ve been thwarted by the queen with her sodding celebrations!**

Anyway, I should probably stop complaining. If there’s anything to be learned from going through this experience again, it’s that you should always have a back-up plan for this sort of holiday. And the great thing about London is it’s pretty damn easy to come up with a back-up plan that’s just as full of awesome.

My restaurant itinerary for the four-day trip is as follows:

Dinner at Hawksmoor Seven Dials

Lunch at The Ledbury

Dinner at The Square

(we’ll eat here when we stay at The Dorchester)

There should also be time for a visit to Borough Market

…and a macaron raid on Pierre Hermé.

I’m pretty happy with that!

It’s almost inevitable that some things will go wrong when the week actually comes. Lowlights from last year included a three-hour train delay on the way down and a ‘meal’ at an Angus Steakhouse.

But as long as the latter doesn’t happen again, I think we’ll be alright. I’m very much looking forward to it!

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*Or at least I’m fairly sure that’s the case. It’s certainly a more interesting story with the queen involved, so let’s stick with it…

**I don’t mean that really. I love the queen. She can thwart me all she wants.

Best of 2011: Restaurant Dish of the Year

As you’d expect given the incredible foodie year I’ve had, I’ve eaten some truly sublime things in 2011. Here I run down the best dishes I’ve eaten overall, and the best dishes I’ve eaten in my home city of Manchester, during the last 12 months.

TOP 10 RESTAURANT DISHES OF THE YEAR (OVERALL)

The Waterside Inn view

The view from The Waterside Inn

  1. Warm Raspberry Soufflé [The Waterside Inn, Bray – August]

Out of everything I’ve eaten this year, this is the one I find myself day-dreaming about the most. My mouth moistens, my memory goes back to a perfect summer’s evening and I want more than anything to be sat in the dining room of The Waterside Inn, gazing out over a moonlit river and eating this faultless raspberry soufflé.

I’ve had many more profound eating experiences during 2011; revelations that changed my whole outlook on food. But this relatively simple dessert handily beat each of them in the most important category of all – taste.

I had often wondered what the fuss is with soufflés; this featherlight version, with the texture of a celestial cloud and the intense flavour of fresh English raspberries (aided by a tart raspberry coulis), explained it better than words ever could. A symphony of pleasures from the moment it arrived on the table to the last spoonful, no dish has ever given me greater joy – and I think it might be a long time before another gives as much again.

2.      Roast Foie Gras, Isle of Skye Sorrel, Gooseberry & Cardamom [Hibiscus, London – July]

3.      Fillet of Beef Rossini, Crunchy Cos Lettuce, “Sacristain” Potatoes [Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London – August]

4.      Seared Scallop, Pea Purée, Toasted Coconut and Morteau Sausage Emulsion [Hibiscus, London – July]

Done correctly, scallops can be remarkable little morsels – jewels of the sea – but I had no idea how good they could be until I had this dish, with a big, fat, hand-dived specimen at its centre. The accompaniments were impressively made and the whole dish was beautifully presented and cooked, but it was Mother Nature who made it sing through the creation of this exquisite central ingredient. So fresh and so sweet, it almost makes me scared to order scallops again in case they’re just not this good.

(You can see a picture of the dish, as well as a picture of the number ten on this list, here, via Nordic Nibbler. I think I might’ve actually been there on the same night as him as I had the first four dishes he had, as well as the same amuse bouche, pre-dessert and first dessert course.)

 5.      Roasted Challandais Duck with a Lemon and Thyme Jus, Potato and Garlic Mousseline [The Waterside Inn, Bray – August]

The Waterside Inn is all about the duck. They float down the Thames as you sit out on the terrace, pictures of them adorn the walls and menus, and the smell of them roasting permeates every inch of the restaurant (delightful when you’re waiting for your food, not so delightful when you wake up hungover in the morning).

I believe it hasn’t been off the menu since it opened well over three decades ago and I found out just why when I had the chance to try it: it’s a total classic. I loved the theatre of the whole duck being presented at the table then carved in front of us. I also loved the little puff pastry duck served alongside it. But, as you’d expect, the dish was really all about the duck itself, which was stunning.

It was supremely old-fashioned, and it looked it, but this is my sort of food. If I ate at The Waterside Inn ten more times, I don’t think there’d be a single occasion where I wouldn’t order the duck.

(You can see a picture of the dish, as well as a picture of the number nine on this list, here, via Food-E-Matters.)

6.      Porterhouse & Bone In Rib-Eye Steaks (150-day Corn Fed USDA Angus Beef), Hand Cut Chips [Goodman Mayfair, London – August]

7.      Baba like in Monte-Carlo [Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London – August]

8.      Macerated English Raspberries, Fine Puff Pastry Layers, Lime and Yoghurt Custard, White Chocolate Shards [Northcote Manor, Langho – August]

9.      Terrine of Foie Gras with Lightly Peppered Rabbit Fillets and Glazed with a Sauternes Wine Jelly, Salad of Chinese Cabbage Leaves and a Violet Mustard-Flavoured Brioche Toast [The Waterside Inn, Bray – August]

 10.      Tartare of King Crab, Sweetcorn, Meadow Sweet & Smoke Kipper Consommé, Sea Herbs [Hibiscus, London – July]

This dish was my intro to two-star Michelin cooking and I could immediately see the difference between it and everything I’d had before at one-star level. “The Red Guide inspectors aren’t completely clueless,” I thought. It was an unusual dish, absolutely nothing like anything I’ve ever had before or since, but it was such an awesome way to start a meal. A fascinating exploration of different tastes and textures, it was a real treat for the senses, and one I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

TOP 5 RESTAURANT DISHES OF THE YEAR (MANCHESTER)

1.      Bone In Sirloin (Belted Galloway), Bone Marrow, Mushroom, Chips [Smoak, City Centre – October]

2.      Rib-Eye Steak, Chips, Humitas, Baby Gem salad, Tender Stem Broccoli and Peppercorn Sauce [Gaucho, City Centre – July]

Gaucho might not do the best steak in town anymore, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t still do a bloody good job. Had an excellent meal there on my stag do, the highlight of which was a main course featuring humitas (a paste of sweetcorn, onions and goat’s cheese, boiled in a corn husk). I’ve never been a big fan of sweetcorn, but these were a revelation – a wonderful sweet accompaniment to the perfectly-cooked beef.

3.      Eccles Cakes with Double Cream [The Mark Addy, Salford – November]

When I got married earlier in the year, I had an Eccles cake mountain instead of a traditional wedding cake (below). It looked good, it tasted good; the guys from Slattery’s in Whitefield did a great job. But when I tasted the Eccles cakes at The Mark Addy a few months later, my first thought was: “Why the hell didn’t we get these guys to do our Eccles cakes instead?” Absolutely gorgeous and, as I said in the comments here, the best I’ve ever had.

Eccles cakes wedding cake, Slattery's

My Eccles cake wedding cake, or as Michelin-starred chef Alexis Gauthier described it: "Brilliant croque en bouche a l'Anglaise."

4.      Pigeon, Bury Black Pudding, Belly Pork, Apple [The Lime Tree, West Didsbury – November]

5.      Chicken with Garlic [Kyotoya, Withington – November]

Food #4: Porterhouse steak

Steak and chips is my all-time favourite meal. I probably eat it once a fortnight as a minimum. Nothing fancy, just a big slab of medium-rare meat, chips fresh from the fryer and a side of sautéed mushrooms.

If it’s a special occasion, like my birthday, I’ll probably triple-cook the chips and do a béarnaise sauce with it. But that’s about it. I like it nice and simple, with little in the way of distractions from the beef itself.

Until I started to develop a keen interest in food about six or seven years ago, I ordered steak pretty much everywhere I went. However, because I didn’t go to many places of real quality, the choice tended to be limited to just three cuts: rump, sirloin and fillet.

If I was lucky, there might be a rib-eye I could choose instead, but they never had the one cut I really wanted.

The one that always seemed to be in films.

The one with the cool name.

The one they called… T-bone.

When I put The List together T-bone steak went straight on there. I’d pined after it for the best part of two decades and still not managed to come across it, so it was an obvious choice. Its appeal had also advanced beyond the fact it sounds like a gangster rapper. I now knew it was made up of different parts of the cow – the top loin and the tenderloin (aka the fillet) – so you get two steaks in one.*

Unfortunately, a couple of days later, I had to take it off The List. I remembered that I had actually eaten a T-bone, five years earlier at a random pub in York. It was a rubbish experience – owing to poor quality beef and shoddy cooking – but one that clearly meant it was disqualified.

Undeterred, I started looking for an alternative; a cut of beef that could match the T-bone for flavour and sex appeal. In the end, I came across the porterhouse, which actually sounded much, much better.** It might not have made it into the Wu-Tang Clan, but it was definitely going to make it on to my plate.***

Goodman Steak Restaurants in London are meant to be among the country’s best steakhouses, if not the best. They offer extremely high quality USDA beef, as well as British varieties, and cook it all on a Josper Grill, the Rolls Royce of charcoal ovens.

Andy Hayler, the food critic famous for having eaten at all of the world’s three-star Michelin restaurants, raved about the steak he had at the branch on Maddox Street in Mayfair. What better place could I visit to give the porterhouse a spin?

My wife and I went to Goodman (the one on the purple bit of the Monopoly board) on the third day of our honeymoon. I was immediately impressed by the huge, wooden-handled shank that was placed before me on the table instead of the usual steak knife. Any restaurant that gives me a weapon to carve up my beef clearly means business.

We skipped starters and went straight for the steaks, ordering a 600g bone-in rib-eye and 600g porterhouse to share between us.****

I tried the rib-eye first and it was incredible. From field to plate, you could tell the love that had gone into it. It was a beautiful piece of beef, perfectly aged and perfectly cooked. The char on it was awesome; the taste mega. Stalin would go to bed at night dreaming he had the authority this flavour commanded.

It was in a totally different league to the best steak I’ve had in the UK (at Gaucho) and even topped the best I’ve ever had, at Ben & Jacks Steakhouse in New York.

Nevertheless, it couldn’t hold a candle to the porterhouse, at least as far as my tastebuds are concerned. It was clearly of the same standard, but I found myself preferring the milder, cleaner and much more defined flavour of the top loin. It was like putting a Humvee up against an Aston Martin – I can appreciate the big, hulking juggernaut, but I’m going to choose James Bond’s car every time.

Still, even an Aston Martin seems a bit lame next to a Bugatti Veyron, and so the top loin did here. The tenderloin wasn’t just in another league, it was on another planet.

Whoever it was who said fillet steak doesn’t have any flavour needs to be hunted down and beaten to death with a top tier porterhouse. Andy Hayler said he’s had superior beef at a couple of places, but I can’t imagine how this could be bettered. It just sang.

Two days earlier I’d been at Hibiscus eating roast duck foie gras and thinking: “Is this ambrosia – the food of the gods?”

In Goodman, Obi-Wan Kenobi appeared and answered my question. “No,” he whispered. “There is another…”

I had beef Rossini at Alain Ducasse a few nights later. Afterwards I concluded that it was probably the best dish I’d ever had, but the fillet of beef itself couldn’t compare to the tenderloin at Goodman. It went beyond wizard; it was full-on Jedi.

And as a Star Wars geek, my praise doesn’t really get any higher than that.

Verdict: Highest possible recommendation, but with the caveat that you try it somewhere really good. It doesn’t matter how great the cut is, if the beef’s not of a high quality or it hasn’t been aged well or cooked properly, you won’t have a special experience.

NEXT UP: Dom Perignon 2000 (technically it should be something else, but I was so excited when I drank this Champagne today, I figured I’d let it jump the queue…)

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*The tenderloin may not be substantial on a T-bone, but you’re still getting a bonus steak. It’s like going to a brothel and buying 60 minutes with an alright prostitute and then finding out you get 5 minutes with a really good one as part of the package.

**The porterhouse is very closely related to the T-bone, with both cuts being taken from the short loin of the cow. So similar are they that apparently some butchers will label a porterhouse as a T-bone, in order to avoid confusing customers. The porterhouse is actually taken from the larger end of the short loin, so it comes with a much bigger portion of fillet.

***Sorry, that was a much longer introduction than expected.

****We didn’t intentionally go for exactly the same as Mr Hayler, but it seems we’ve got similar tastes where beef is concerned. I do very much enjoy a rib-eye steak and I was interested to see how it tasted cooked on the bone and how the porterhouse stacked up against it.

As per usual, I said “no” to sauces – I wanted to taste the beef all on its own.

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