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Friday, 24 June 2011

Trial by Lunch

If you ask me what’s the best thing about being a lawyer I wouldn’t hesitate: lunch. In the old days I would save up a week’s worth of 25p luncheon vouchers and blow the lot every Friday on a square hamburger at Wendy’s on Regent Street. I really knew how to live then.

Wendy’s was pretty exotic for someone who’d grown up eating little else besides Frosties, and to a lesser extent Coco Pops – which I loved but were risky as I had to eat them quickly before the milk went brown. You could say I was a fussy eater.  If I woke my parents up screaming from a nightmare it wasn’t because I was being attacked by monsters. It was because I’d dreamed I’d been forced to eat macaroni cheese or worse, semolina with jam on it. I grew out of it eventually (although I will never, EVER, eat rice pudding).

The vogue a few years ago was for in-house lunches. I was once invited with a client to the boardroom of some estate agents to celebrate a property sale we’d all worked on. We sat around a mahogany dining table drinking wine from cut glass goblets, eating off fine bone china plates whilst being served by a man who wasn’t sure if he was meant to be impersonating Jeeves or Boris Karloff.

It was about as relaxing and enjoyable as a meeting to discuss funeral arrangements with a firm of undertakers. The client’s thank you was succinct: “Thank you for lunch. If you ever invite me again you will cease to act for me with immediate effect”.
Waitresses dressed as French maids
Lunches tend to be more fun and less formal these days. In the last week I’ve been lucky enough to go to a few interesting restaurants. 

First off was Le Relais de Venise in Throgmorton Street in the City. The name of the restaurant translates I think as “Food for fat, pink insurance brokers” - although I was never that good at French so this may not be an exact, literal translation. The concept of this restaurant is brilliant and confirms that simplicity really is genius. 

Apparently, the Frenchman behind it, Jean-Pierre, was fed up with customers coming into his restaurant, reading the menu full of Boeuf en Daube aux Pruneaux and Magrets de Canard aux Cerises and then saying: “Can you just do me a nice steak and chips, maybe with some sauce on it?” So that’s all he serves. Salad of lettuce, walnuts and a mustardy vinaigrette to start, followed by entrecote steak cooked rare or medium, with special sauce and chips. At £21 it is amazing value. The steak is tender, the chips crispy, and the waitresses are dressed up as French maids out of Carry On Don’t Lose Your Head. What’s not to like?

Pollen Street Social
Next up is Pollen Street Social, the new restaurant opened by Gordon Ramsey protégé Jason Atherton.  has received loads of publicity, and some rave reviews. I was invited by Peter Prescott, a client and friend of mine, who is no slouch when it comes to restaurants, being co-founder and managing director of the brilliant Boundary in Shoreditch and Lutyens in Fleet Street. Peter was checking out the competition. I was intrigued to taste food cooked by one of the most innovative and celebrated chefs in England.

The room is modern, understated and elegant and the waiting staff bob around smiling. It’s informal and buzzing. After dismissing it initially as bland, Peter grudgingly admits that he can’t help liking the place. He starts with the “signature” Full English Breakfast. As you’d expect from this type of restaurant it isn’t the groaning plate you’d get down the cafe but a dainty dish which could be gobbled in one mouthful. Very tasty, very small is the verdict.

I have the BBQ mackerel which the waiter “explains” to me as he serves me. Apart from the fact I could only understand about one word in six due to his Inspector Clouseau accent, I have a problem with having food explained as it's presented. I just want to choose it and eat it. It’s a bit like having a joke deconstructed before you get to the punch line – it loses its impact. In any event, the feeesh eez deleeeshouss.

Sort of Tiramisu
To follow I have Irish ox cheek with tongue and onglet.  I don’t really know why I choose it but nothing else jumps out at me. It's meaty and falling apart as I eat it, as I presume it is supposed to. But I’m not sure I’d order it again. I would though the creamy horseradish mash which accompanies it.

Dessert is what is described as tiramisu. Nice as it is I prefer the one my brother in law makes with cream and what we used to call “sand” biscuits (I think they’re called sponge fingers) drenched in coffee and booze, which actually looks like tiramisu. It’s not that the food isn’t all delicious. It’s just that I find complicated food like this slightly too clever by half to be really enjoyable when you go to a restaurant and want to have a good chat with a mate.
Taberna Etrusca
Taberna Etrusca in Bow Courtyard near St Pauls is a traditional Italian restaurant of the type you hardly see any more. When I was a child, going out to a restaurant (which was a rare event) inevitably meant going to the local Italian with its red check tablecloths, huge peppermills and laughing waiters pinching my cheeks and handing me a lollipop on the way out. 

Taberna Etrusca turns back the clock, minus the check tablecloths but including the waiter greeting you like his long lost cousin from Palermo. As we go in, the lawyer I’m with says he has acted for “the family” that owns the restaurant for years.  I’m not sure how to take this and anxiously eye the Al Pacino look alike in the corner in case he slides off to the toilet. At the same time I check the barman to see if he suddenly ducks down under the counter. 

My fears are unfounded. I have clams in a tomato and white wine sauce followed by veal with lemon and zucchini. I would happily have licked both plates clean. A couple of glasses of wine to ease it all down and I leave smiling like a 10 year old with a lollipop.
Feeling somewhat plumper but willing to plough on, my week ends at Bistro du Vin in St John Street in Clerkenwell, which is part of the Hotel du Vin chain. The first thing that strikes me is the window decoration which consists of a couple of sides of beef hanging in all their gory glory. Vegetarians beware. 

The room itself is all dark wood and brown leather chairs surrounding a central cooking area. You can eat at the bar and watch your steak or burger being cooked on the Josper Grill. I have quite a chat with one of the chefs about this grill. It costs £10,000 and is basically an enclosed barbeque which uses only charcoal for heat. I’m told that because the meat bakes and grills at the same time it cooks quicker and doesn't dry out. I find it funny that not only do menus go to great lengths to explain the provenance of their ingredients we now get a whole spiel about the cooking equipment. What next? “ The chef was conceived in a field of natural pasture besides a stream of pure mountain water….”
I have avocado with prawns and marie rose sauce to start. This is a throwback but with fat, fresh prawns and a ripe avocado is a classic, simple starter. Seduced by the Josper Grill and not fancying a big steak I choose the burger. It looks great and tastes sensational. The meat has really taken on the charcoal flavour – not in a burnt sausage on the barbeque way – but is still moist and juicy. I can’t remember eating a better burger. Even Wendy’s square patty pales in comparison. The chips are a bit flaccid and undercooked but it is all about the burger so I forgive them.
Not surprisingly given the name, the Hotel and Bistro du Vin chain is renowned for its wine. They have a special wine machine which dispenses wine by the glass but doesn’t spoil the wine in a bottle once it’s been opened. It looks a bit like a cigarette machine. I can only imagine Wallace and Gromit had a hand in designing it. The upshot is that they can serve classic wines either in tasting measures or by the glass so you can try some amazing wines without having to buy the whole bottle.

I try a “big” Italian red which I appreciated as being very smooth but probably wouldn’t be able to pick out again if you tested me against a £4 Bulgarian Merlot. It struck me that this is probably the worst possible place to put a wine machine. They have wine here anyway, it’s a restaurant. Better to put it on the platform at Waterloo Station, they’d make a fortune.
Wine machine designed by Wallace and Gromit
Of the four, I’d go back to Bistro du Vin with friends to sit at the bar and have a steak; take clients to the Italian or Relais de Venise and a foodie to Pollen Street Social. On second thoughts though, I’d better head to the gym…