Pied à Terre
I nearly walked straight past Pied à Terre. Situated on a rather dirty and unremarkable corner of Charlotte Street, in sight of the BT tower, it should be plainly visible but, like the Tardis, is hidden by some magic to all but the most shrewd observer. In this case my brother was kind enough to be the Doctor in this metaphor, and I the newly recruited companion, struggling to locate the front door.
After squeezing through the narrow lobby, we were seated for a late lunch in the cozy, almost cramped rear dining room. Guests were thin on the ground, entirely expected at this hour, but at no point did we feel that things were winding down for the afternoon. The service was positively manic throughout our meal, but this didn’t create an unsettling experience by any stretch.
We chose the set lunch menu, touted “the best value Michelin star menu in London” on their website, and justifiably so. £23.50 each for 2 delightful courses, plus tasty canapes at the onset, is astounding. There’s also an extremely attractive £6 desert add-on: a choice between the obligatory cheese selection and an “assiette” of ice creams. We opted for a la carte options at this final stage.
Of the canapes I thought the leftmost pastry ‘basket’ was the least impressive – a simple combination of sharp tomato and smooth cream with flavours that vanished after a couple of seconds. I would expect this level of quality from a decent pre-made pack of dinner party snacks from a supermarket. On the right, a dollop of foie gras suspended between delicate wafers was a sudden gear change, with the foie gras having just the right richness, not at all sickening (as was the case when it was served to me at the OXO Tower in an overwhelming artery-clogging mound) and complemented in texture by the light crack of the wafers. Finally, the neatly layered shot glass of what I recall as langoustines (but which may have been small prawns) submerged in a buttery sauce beneath a topping of something or other delicious (no idea) was an oozy coup de grace to this three-piece preamble.
It was at this point that I turned my attention to the wine list, which was perhaps the most extensive I have ever seen: two leather-bound books—one for reds and one for whites—encased in a black box, plonked on our table by the well spoken sommelier. Brother and I discussed how the process of wine selection to match a meal is perhaps the aspect of the fine dining experience given the least thought by most restaurants. Not here though. Each book was prefaced by a recommended short list of wines by the bottle and glass. This is such a simple step for a restaurant to take, but invaluable to someone like me, whose grasp of viticulture is roughly equivalent to that of a dog slurping a spilt puddle of champagne off the kitchen floor.
I quickly scanned the reds and found an attractive name, Innocent Bystander, a Shiraz from Australia, of which we both had a single glass. This, miraculously, did not clash with any part of the luncheon (even my light airy asparagus starter) and had a big, sumptuous fruity punch.
Said asparagus came in a salad mixed with various bits and pieces including some edible flowers. It was beautiful to behold and a real pleasure to eat. Tiny croutons packed just the right amount of saltiness to inject essential zing into the leafy components, and the few asparagus panacotta scoops were wonderfully soft. The asparagus itself was perfectly wilted with a nice bite.
Brother had some sort of rabbit dish which was presented in a similar style – ingredients stacked like a work of modern art but with a more muted colour palette. He seemed satiated by its flavours.
We shared a main course of lamb, cooked rare at our request, which was world-class and the agreed highlight of the day. Honestly I can’t remember what cut of lamb it was, but it was certainly succulent. Peculiarly shaped carrots, laid on top, were striking in the mouth and clearly well sourced. The scoop of creamy vegetable and the viscous dark sauce came together with the meat to form a masterpiece.
From the a la carte menu I picked a raspberry and mascarpone pudding but was informed that the kitchen were out of raspberries. Disappointed, I stammered something about swapping out raspberries for strawberries (the lamb having left me severely addled). The waitress rebuffed my nonsense and pointed to a praline based option as an alternative, which I accepted, immediately kicking myself because I generally despise the taste of praline.
The result, five minutes later, was a total redemption of praline in my eyes: a silky mousse crowned with an ethereal cream in the centre of the plate, and adorned with cinnamon biscuits. Off to one side an incendiary lemon and passion fruit sorbet somehow managed not to blast away the remnants of each mouthful of the praline mousse, making the dessert a joyous back-and-forth affair. Little nutty crumbs added to the texture of the sorbet well.
A bitter-sweet chocolate tart was brother’s selection, and was also seemingly the most popular on the menu (across from us a party of six chaps all chose it too). The tart itself emerged as a chiseled cuboid with a remarkably dry powdery hat. The strange looking balls turned out to be akin to popcorn. All met with praise.
We ended with coffee, which was not noteworthy in any way, and petit fours, which were. The three-levelled structure on which the treats were arranged created an exciting event, and the treats themselves fulfilled their visual promise. At this point I was stuffed and so could not stomach one of each, but found the cherry marshmallow, chocolates and apricot fruit pastel lovely.
In total, with the more expensive dessert choice, wine, still water and coffee, this was a very cheap lunch at under £120, and all expertly produced to a standard deserving of the two star accolade. A definite winner.
Thence to Long Bar at the Sanderson Hotel, which was a laughably short walk from Pied à Terre. I had intended us to sample the darker environs of the Purple Bar at the same hotel, but found it closed until 18:00 – no good for our purposes. The Long Bar lived up to its name: spanning half the front of the hotel and separated from a bright and sunny plaza only by a sliding door and thin white curtains which blew in the mid-afternoon breeze.
After fidgeting stupidly with my high chair for a few seconds I scanned the cocktail menu and located a lychee option called “The Student”. This was a vibrant, nutty mix served in a martini glass and well chilled. The lychee made itself known, which I thought was unusual for this typically subdued fruit, and the cocktail as a whole was smooth, relaxing and quite special.
I sampled all of brother’s cocktails on the day and found his Black Bison—a combo of vodka, blackberries, limes and brown sugar—very nice indeed, although not as memorable.
The service was rapid and responsive and all cocktails were reasonably priced around £12.
Mark’s Bar at Hix was very different indeed. In fact it is hard to imagine it having been more of a departure in terms of atmosphere. In this secluded basement lounge with old fashioned leather sofas and armchairs, we were poured a small glass of cool water (refilled later) and handed a copy of their drinks menu to share. It’s a menu that’s clearly had a lot of thought put into it, with a panoply of quirky cocktails on offer divided into eras of mixing history, each era headed with a cheerful description of its theme.
My choice was the Toreador: a citrusy bright yellow blend of tequila and apricot brandy. It really hit the spot and left me feeling very mellow. I settled into a game of spying on the staff while they chatted, chortled and folded tea towels.
Brother’s Hanky Panky was a much more powerful beverage constructed from Beefeater gin and other mysterious potions such as Antica Formula and Fernet Branca.
Both our drinks were served in tiny classic cut glasses and served promptly. I headed to the toilets immediately after ordering (guided by a ridiculous but somehow not out of place neon “tiolets” sign) and by the time I got back they were there, waiting. Prices were entirely reasonable. This was my favourite bar of the evening.
On to Duke’s Bar at Duke’s, with its entrance secreted down a back alley in St James’s Place. Think classic hotel bar with portraits of what looked like earls and baronettes coating the walls. I had read the martinis here were legendary, and since I was a martini virgin we both ordered ours with gin. The service was polite and put us at ease, although our drinks did take a while to arrive – not overly long mind you.
Out came the bartender, dressed in a white suit, with a trolley which he pulled up to our table. We were asked if we preferred a particular brand of gin or if we would rather he surprised us. This was all extremely classy. Of course we couldn’t resist and asked for the surprise, at which point he cracked open a bottle from some obscure micro distillery, peeled an orange, wiped the peel with a flourish on the inside of each glass and poured the gin. I thought this was quite an impressive show.
Unfortunately I very quickly realised, upon taking my first sip, that martinis were not to my taste and I wouldn’t be trying one again. I could tell though that it had been concocted with a great deal of professionalism and careful attention. Brother lapped his up and then kindly downed mine too. I despise wasted booze.
I should note the crispy mini crackers here were moreish to the extreme and I gobbled an unhealthy number of them before I left. The main topic of discussion was how feasible it might be, if one were homeless in London, to come here every night and use a martini as cover to devour all the nibbles. We concluded that the idea was fanciful because of the dress code.
Vista and Upper Rockwell
On our way down the Mall to the Trafalgar Hotel we mused over the Royal Wedding due on Friday. Specifically the potential for violent protest had us slightly concerned for our lunch at l’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, scheduled for the same day. We shall see.
The main attraction was the terrace bar, aptly dubbed Vista. We were charged £5 each as an entry fee and had tacky bracelets wrapped around our wrists to identify us, like cattle. However the view from the terrace was entirely worth the inconvenience: almost level with the statue of Nelson atop his column, we gazed in wonder at the skyline and the pedestrians below, who appeared much like ants now, scurrying to and from their respective hives.
At this point I was quite drunk and became frustrated with the absence of any waiters actually waiting on us. Brother went to place an order at the bar. It was only a full ten minutes after he came back that the creamy liqueur-like items finally arrived. I can only remember that they were not unpleasant to drink.
The wind was giving me a chill so we gulped the tipple and descended, ironically, to Upper Rockwell on the ground floor. This was a much less interesting place, too spaced out for my taste and rather dingy. We had missed our train and I couldn’t stop myself grabbing a final cocktail: something called Idyll Hands Work containing dark ‘Mozart’ chocolate, served warm with a taste like mulled wine. This was nice, but then with a sweeping ape-like hand gesture I stupidly spilt a third of it all over my shirt sleeve and the floor. It was time to leave.