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.
Dining Room: 2.5/5
Overall score: 56/100 (Very Good)
*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.
“It’s only a noodle bar,” the bemused builder shouted from down the street. “Who the hell queues to get in a noodle bar anyway?”
As I stood outside Koya, hoping the line of people wasn’t so long that it’d fill the tiny dining room completely before I managed to get a seat, I wondered the same thing. Everyone appeared sober and the place didn’t seem to sell kebabs. It was 5.28pm on an otherwise quiet Thursday evening and my Salfordian brain couldn’t fathom what was going on. Does nobody watch Neighbours in Soho?
We got seats but only just. The two foreign language students who sat next to us were the last customers through the door before people started getting turned away. It was now 5.31pm and the restaurant had been open for exactly one minute.
“It must be good if it’s this popular,” my wife whispered across the table. “I hope so,” was my reply.
Things got off to a strong start with some tempura – two large prawns with an array of vegetables, including courgette and sweet potato. Some of the veg was underdone and I would’ve liked more flavour from the prawns, but tempura lives and dies by the quality of its batter and this most definitely lived. It was the sort of batter you always hope for but so rarely get; ultra crisp yet exceptionally light. I was picking at the scraps long after the prawns and veg had been consumed.
My wife enjoyed her opener too: a special of duck, poached and served sliced in a cold broth. In most noodle bars this was would be a disgusting dish – low-quality meat in a cloying, pond water sauce. But at Koya it was serene and refreshing; a nice bit of duck, carefully cooked, submerged in a delicate stock. I was very impressed.
Unfortunately, the meal was about to take a bit of a downward turn, and it wasn’t the restaurant’s fault. Carried away with the starters, I’d forgotten that I had absolutely no idea how to eat noodles with chopsticks. No idea, even, where to begin. My buta miso hiya-atsu arrived, I looked down at the two pieces of wood and the little spoon that had come with it, and thought to myself: “How the hell am I meant to get this food out of the bowl and into my mouth?”
Regrettably, my ignorant brain went into solution mode:
Right… I need an expert to show me what to do, fast… someone Japanese, I don’t trust these gajin… OK, there’s one in the corner – just watch… fuck me, look how high up she’s holding the chopsticks… mad skills… she’ll do… right, what precisely is she doing… looks like she finds the end of the noodle first, then she lifts it completely out of the broth… seems easy enough, I can do that – what next… OK, so she drops the noodle down gently on the spoon and then circles it round into a neat little pile… that looks pretty easy too – not much to this so far… now for the eating pa… eww, I did not see that coming… I would’ve thought that was bad manners… did she really slurp it…. yes, she really slurped it… she’s still supporting it with the chopsticks but she’s definitely just sucking it into her mouth… well, I guess I best follow suit… when in Ro…
“How the hell are you meant to eat these?” my wife hissed across the table.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got this one,” I said confidently. “I’ve been watching that woman over there. She seems to know what she’s doing. Think I’ve got the technique down, so just follow my lead…”
OK, my turn… the wife’s looking to you for guidance on this, so don’t mess it up… first things first – find the end of a noodle… hmmm… no, that’s not one… that’s not one either… where do the ends of noodles live… I can’t find one anywhere, this is trickier than I thought… I wonder if the noodles in my bowl even have ends, they just seem to be made entirely of mi… aha! …got one… we’re cooking on gas now… easy street… right, time for stage two of the operation – this’ll be a cinch… lift the noodle from the bowl… OK, no need to panic, I’m just still lifting it from the bowl… and STILL lifting from the bowl… are my noodles longer than hers, I think they’re longer than hers… still lifting… I’m going to run out of arm in a minute, bloody hell… OK, no worries, here we go… nearly there… get the spoon ready…
…what the fuck was that, where’s my noodle gone… it was there one minute and now it’s… oh my god, I think it broke under its own weight and went back in the bowl… what a splash that was… must’ve fallen about a foot… am I wet… no, I’m not wet… oh shit, are the customers sat next to me wet… no, thank god – they don’t seem to have noticed… has anyone noticed… oh great, the wife has… she’s pissing herself laughing…
There were three more unsuccessful attempts to copy the Japanese lady before I gave up and developed my own highly inefficient technique. The illusion that nobody had noticed the splashing was shattered when the customers next to us asked if they could move to a different table, shooting me a disgusted look as they got up to go. I don’t think they wanted to be my friend.
The udon noodles – when I finally got them into my mouth – were excellent and I loved the broth they came in. I couldn’t quite get over the pork and miso paste looking like the poo of an ill dog and I felt it spoiled the flavour of the stock the more it filtered in. But by this stage of the meal I’d more or less forgotten about the food and was thinking more about what a tit I’d made of myself. Oh well.
I arrived at Koya looking for a top cheap eat in the West End and I think I found one. It reminded me a little bit of Yuzu in Manchester, an oriental hidden gem doing food far better than a lot of restaurants twice the price. Of course with its Michelin Bib Gourmand and Observer Food Monthly awards Koya’s already well-discovered, but the feeling of a small kitchen punching above its weight is the same.
I would love to go back and try the tempura again. I may give the noodles a miss!
(Thanks to Hungry Hoss for the recommendation.)
Dining Room: 2.5/5
Overall score: 45/100 (Good)
Restaurant bloggers love to fill their posts with photographs but pictures can be deceiving.
Everything I’d seen of the dining room at The Ledbury suggested it was bland and lifeless; all whitewashed modernity without a hint of character. Even the professional photos on the restaurant’s own website carried a cold, unwelcoming air – it looked like the waiting room of a dentist with a feng shui fetish.
So I was amazed to walk in the door and find such a fantastic and welcoming space, bright and airy with a high ceiling and large windows. The sun shone through the greenery outside, the smart table settings provided understated elegance and I immediately got the impression that this is a room where special things happen.
“The photos really don’t do this place justice,” I said to my wife as I took my seat, as relaxed as you possibly can be outside your own home. A couple of minutes later I was saying the exact same thing about the food.
I’ve never liked the look of a Brett Graham plate. Photos showed his dishes to be overly busy, messy even. I always got the impression he was simply trying too hard to make up for a lack of genuine design talent. Yet this couldn’t have been further from the truth during my lunch at The Ledbury; there was this indecipherable, indefinable beauty to all the food placed in front of me. Dishes that I must’ve seen hundreds of times before just had this wonderful harmony that no photographer I know had ever managed to catch.
They say you taste with your eyes – this meal was great before I even started sticking forks in my mouth.
A nibble of foie gras parfait with apricot kicked us off; a dazzling little morsel which punched above its flavour weight like it was Stanley Ketchel in 1909.* I’m used to top restaurants being more generous with their pre-meal snacks but I wouldn’t swap any of their quantity for the quality of this. A one-bite canapé has no right to be so good.
The bread arrived next and I continued to be wowed. Two of the rolls were unremarkable but I don’t think there are anywhere near enough remarks to describe the incredible bacon and onion brioche: a wicked, buttery-rich pastry, delicious in that ‘all my arteries are clogging at once’ kind of way. If you had a heart attack through eating one, you’d think it was worth it.
Flame Grilled Mackerel with Smoked Eel, Celtic Mustard and Shiso is probably Brett Graham’s most famous dish so it seemed rude not to order it for our starters. Fresh as rain, it provided a nice contrast with the above-mentioned greasy spoon in a bun; the stunning mackerel fillet in perfect balance with the rest of the ingredients.
The plate was full of little wonders but I think the smoked eel took the prize. Flaked and dressed, it was housed in a supremely delicate cucumber parcel, so thin as to be almost transparent. It was magic.
My main course was another Brett Graham signature: Saddle of Berkshire Roe Buck with White Beetroot, Red Wine Lees and Bone Marrow. For me this was even better than the mackerel, the venison of spectacular quality and flawlessly complemented by everything around it. From the ingredients listed in the dish’s name to the crispy layered potatoes, venison sausage and the deep, sweet sauce that were also served, each element was a joy.
Usually I guard my food like a hippo mother guards her babies and begrudge giving any away so others can taste. But with this roe buck dish I was so excited and so desperate for someone else to know how brilliant it was I couldn’t stop passing forkfuls over to my wife. “You’ve got to try this!” I kept saying. “It’s amazing.”
Of course I got a few forkfuls back in exchange, allowing me to sample her Roasted Breast and Confit Leg of Pigeon with Red Vegetables and Leaves, Foie Gras and Cherry Blossom. It was another excellent dish – the foie gras particularly good, the pigeon the best I’ve ever had – though my roe buck was a bigger star.
I wanted to order pretty much all the desserts listed on the menu but, never able to resist the puffed up combination of egg whites and cream sauce, eventually went for Passion Fruit Soufflé with Sauternes Ice Cream. It didn’t disappoint. Light and fluffy and full of passion fruit flavour, it was a textbook example of one of my favourite sweets. I preferred the soufflé I had at The Square two days later, but only just. The sauternes ice cream was a faultless accompaniment.
Service was outstanding from start to finish; The Square’s spirit of generosity just as prevalent here at its sister restaurant. Before the petits fours (a jelly and a liquid centre chocolate, both very classy) our waiter brought out some complimentary sorbets as an early anniversary present. He didn’t care that our anniversary was two months away (!), he just seemed to be looking for an excuse to give us a present.
Our sommelier, who’d been so good** throughout the meal I wanted to take her home with me, followed this up with another gift. Seeing I’d finished my pudding wine (an electric 2009 DonnafugataBen Ryé Passito di Pantelleria from Sicily) before I’d made a proper start on the sorbets, she came over and poured me a full new glass!
It’s the little things that make life so great.
With two Michelin stars, first place in the Times Top 100 Restaurants list, 14th place in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and a legion of critics and bloggers fawning over it, I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that you need to go to The Ledbury. But I’ll say it anyway.
Dining Room: 4.5/5
Overall score: 95/100 (Brilliant – Worth a Special Trip)
*Yeah, a Stanley Ketchel reference. That’s how cool I am. In case you don’t know who he is and the analogy went over your head, he was one of the best middleweight boxing champions of all time and a ferocious puncher. Well-known for fighting heavyweights, who would often weigh a couple of stone more than him, he’s arguably most famous for flooring one of the greatest heavies of them all, Jack Johnson, in 1909.
**My dad complained the other day that I don’t talk about wine enough, so I should at least mention what else we drank under the sommelier’s expert guidance. With the mackerel we had a half bottle of the 2010 Schloss Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner Lamm from Austria and with the mains we had another half of the 2009 Ridge Vineyards Geyserville Zinfandel from the US. Both top choices.
“Technically there is no wine with this course, but I could just pour you both another glass of that Riesling you loved so much. Would you like some more?”
Two unsolicited sentences and some pouring was all it took for our young sommelier to capture the spirit of The Square – the generosity of it, the eagerness to please.
I’d expected no wine with the immaculate cheesecake in front of me. Why would I? The menu – helpfully propped up on the table in front of us – made it clear there wasn’t any and I was perfectly happy with that. Being the second to last course of an incredible tasting menu, I’d had a skinful already and was very content.
But customers being “very content” doesn’t seem to fit in with the ethos of The Square, or at least not the one that prevailed on the night of our visit. Mere satisfaction didn’t seem to cut it. If I’d told one of our waiters I was only happy, presumably they’d have gone into the back and self-flagellated to repent their failures.
Everyone appeared determined to go above and beyond; to exceed even the highest expectations. It made for a magnificent evening.*
The effort I’ve alluded to was clear right from the off when a vast array of nibbles on the theme of taramasalata arrived. A lot of top restaurants make little attempt to cater for allergies at this stage, either shrugging their shoulders at the appalling notion of providing a dairy free substitute for my wife (I’m looking at you, Hibiscus) or trotting out a hastily assembled, inevitably rubbish raw salad.
But the tempura veg The Square offered up was supreme; the truffle-based dip they delivered probably better than mine. It was a very good start.
We moved on to some excellent house-made breads and then through to the tasting menu proper, where even an opposition MP would struggle to pick fault with the dishes. Tiny pickled Japanese mushrooms, an unexpected accompaniment to the cured fillet of beef and utterly delectable, were the first bit to blow my mind. They were surpassed two courses later by one of the restaurant’s most famous dishes, a luscious lasagne of crab with a cappuccino of shellfish and champagne foam. The cylinder of perfect pasta and sweet crab almost seemed to float in the texturally ethereal sauce, buttery rich and intensely flavoured. I didn’t want my eating of it to ever end.
Better yet was still to come. You don’t really expect the simplest dishes featuring familiar and ordinary ingredients to be the most dazzling, but that was the case with the saddle of lamb. It was a basic Sunday roast risen to heights of hypobaropathy by an exquisite piece of meat and spherified golden mint sauce, which literally burst with flavour.
“I never knew lamb could taste this good,” said my wife. Neither did I.
By the time the desserts were set to arrive we were positively giddy. Everything had been so wonderful and then the sommelier rocked up and offered us another glass of what was probably our favourite wine so far. Joy doesn’t begin to describe it.
Brillat-Savarin cheesecake is another Square signature and it was easy to see why. Simple and brilliant had been the kitchen’s hallmarks all night and this bore them both. Vanilla soufflé with rhubarb ripple ice cream, the next and final dish of the evening, did the same job and more. I adore soufflés and had eaten a stunning passion fruit version at The Ledbury two days earlier. This was better.
My wife had been able to eat most of the courses, some with the odd tweak, but where complete replacements were needed no half measures were taken. Instead of the crab she got a beautiful lobster dish, which was £10 more expensive on the a la carte. Instead of the Wigmore cheese she got breast of barbary duck with a tarte fine of caramelised endive, new season’s turnips and cherries – also superb. For pudding she had a celebration of strawberries with meringue followed by something magical involving spheres of Alphonso mango.
When I asked at the end how she felt the restaurant had done catering for her dietary requirements her verdict was simple: “They win.” Being able to eat all the petits fours – delightfully fun lollies of coated fruit, jellies and swiss roll, and malted chocolates, an extra box of which was given to us to take home – was the icing on the cake.
Here’s the menu I ate in full. The wine matching was top notch, but I think by now that probably goes without saying.
Roulade of Octopus with a Citrus Vinaigrette, Taramasalata and Mussel Beignets
Côtes de Provence, Symphonie, 2010, Château Sainte, Marguerite Cru Classé, Provence, France
Cured Fillet of Aged Beef with Tête de Moine, Tardivo, Grilled Potatoes, Scorched Onion and Truffle
Crozes-Hermitage Blanc, 2010, Champ Morel, Rhône, France
Roast Isle of Orkney Scallops with White Asparagus, New Season’s Cepes and Parmesan
Pinot Blanc “Mise du Printemps” 2010, Josmeyer, Alsace, France
Lasagne of Dorset Crab with a Cappuccino of Shellfish and Champagne Foam
Savigny les Beaune, 2009, Simon Bize, Burgundy, France
Sauté of John Dory with Turnip Tops, Snails, Morels, Peas and Parmesan
Chorey-Les-Beaune, Domaine Maillard, 2008, Burgundy, France
Herb Crusted Saddle of Spring Lamb with a Purée of Peas, Asparagus and Mint
Carignano Del Sulcis Riserva Rocca Rubia 2008, Santadi, Sardinia, Italy
Wigmore with Truffle Honey and Rhubarb
Riesling Spätlese Zeltinger Schlossberg 2009, Selbach-Oster, Mosel, Germany
Brillat-Savarin Cheesecake with New Season’s English Strawberries
Vanilla Soufflé with Rhubarb Ripple Ice Cream
Roussillière Doux, Vin de France MMX, Yves Cuilleron
Having booked the meal at The Square several months in advance, I was interested to see chef Phil Howard on this year’s Great British Menu and get a (no doubt heavily-edited) glimpse into what he and his food are all about beforehand. Throughout the programmes I was glad to see that while other competitors were obsessing over new techniques and trying to do something different, his main priority seemed to be ensuring the food tasted damn good.
And that’s exactly what I got at his restaurant. There were no real gimmicks, no attempts to do anything ‘ground-breaking’. It was just fabulous, assured cooking from a team confident and mature enough to stick with what they know best. The waiting staff more than lived up to the food.
In the final episode of GBM, which was still on air when we arrived at The Square, Phil stated that the business he works in is all about pleasing people. I’m sure after all these years at the top I don’t need to tell a lot of you this, but he’s bloody good at his job.
Dining Room: 3.5/5
Overall score: 95/100 (Brilliant – Worth a Special Trip)
*Interestingly the serving team at The Square apparently had quite a poor reputation until a few years ago. On this occasion they were about as good as it gets.