For real grown-ups only
STEPHEN BULL ST MARTIN'S LANE 12 Upper St Martin's Lane, London WC2H 9DL. Tel: 0171 379 7811. Open for lunch Monday to Friday from noon to 2.15pm and Monday to Saturday from 5.45 to 11.30pm. Average price per person, pounds 30. Credit cards accepted
Sunday 10 August 1997
Almost as seductive were the two penny sized cheese sables that sit temptingly in a bowl in the centre of each table, and curiously enough these two preambles to the meal blend quietly into the general muted colour scheme. This is one of these increasingly common long thin restaurants. On one side tasteful, softly lit white dominates, while the far end wall is covered entirely in hessian which matches the soda bread. The banquettes (colour co-ordinated with the cheese sables) don't stop where they ought to, but carry right on up the wall almost to the ceiling. The seat part itself is about four inches too high for the table and the chairs, which gives you a peculiar sense of vertiginous imbalance. All rather weird, but I suppose the lack of visual distraction should, theoretically, leave you free to concentrate on the food.
The staff are extremely jolly and welcoming, which makes up a fair degree for the subdued decor. Our waitress put up gamely with wild indecision from me, as I worked my way through several choices of first courses in a matter of seconds, before finally settling on the plate of little vegetable concoctions. In the end, the lure of caponata, that most delicious of Sicilian aubergine dishes, proved greater than my lust for a tarte flambee with goats' cheese, bacon and walnuts, or the grand luxe of a foie gras terrine. The caponata when it arrived wasn't bad, but the scoop of softly grainy chickpea-ish mush, scented with cumin that lay alongside was even better. Tzatziki, made with long strands of cucumber fared well, but the wobbling homage to retro cooking in the form of red pepper bavarois was disappointing in a vinegary sort of a way. It was too creamy for my liking as well.
My lunch time companion was James, the editor of an American food magazine. Each time we've talked on the phone across the Atlantic, fate or destiny or even stranger forces have landed my entire village with a power cut of several hours duration. Meeting him in the flesh made me nervous - would it bring thunderbolts and chaos to the streets of London? Terrible floods or outbreaks of plague? In the event it was all pretty dull ... as far as I know, though perhaps it precipitated the recurrent cascades of glasses crashing from the waiters hands to the hard floors below the bar. Or maybe that was just par for the course.
He did, however, seem to have that irritating knack of picking tastier dishes than me. Take his first course (and I would have done if I hadn't been on my best I'd-love-more-work-from-you behaviour): to call it a warm rabbit salad, which they did on the menu, was a modest understatement. Here was the most delicate, light but tender discs of boned and stuffed rabbit, centred with a discreet curl of a tender snail (two creatures, allied by a love of lettuce), neatly positioned around a small mound of salad leaves and a crown of Cumbrian air-dried ham. Imagination at its best, with no showy trickery, just quiet, intense flavours. It's heartening to see so many prime British ingredients featuring proudly on a menu. In this instance excellent Ticklemore goats' cheese, Montgomery's nutty real cheddar, and Suffolk cured bacon all get a special mention too.
James scored again with his main course, seasonal sea trout, with crisp salty skin, on a rich, buttery red wine sauce. He's now peachy keen on soliciting the recipe for his magazine's forth- coming special on the gastronomic heaven that is London. The skin on my cod matched the skin of the sea trout, but the fish itself lacked edge, and the chicken juices sauce wasn't quite lip-smackingly sticky enough to pull through. The rosemary tagliatelle stole the show.
James, being on a mission to eat his way through half of London's restaurants in less than a week, fell at the pudding hurdle. Since I'd scoffed half the supply of soda bread before we'd even started the meal proper, I called it a day with him. Rather a pity, really, since I suspect that the puds might have been up there with the bread. They certainly sound good; it was hell saying no to gooseberry and vanilla creme brulee and the debauched promise of loose-your-balance trifle.
Anyway, we were virtuous and abstemious. Well, virtuous-ish. James whipped two little sachets from the Chocolate Society Shop out of his bag, with a brace of rather fine chocolate truffles nestling in each one. Our waitress laughed and commended his choice, and did not seem in the least bit put out by his American bring-your-own nibbles policy.
I'm a long-time fan, of Stephen Bull's cooking - his Blandford Street restaurant and the funkier Clerkenwell bistro are old favourites, with consistently good food, but this new one ... well, I think maybe it's too grown-up for me. It feels serious, a bit of a gastronomic temple league candidate, and I like a touch more levity even if it is only in the form of a couple of splashes of colour, or even a toning sepia print. Some of the cooking (the bread, and most of James's meal, damn it) hits gastronomic temple heights, but it loses its footing here and there (mostly during my meal, blast it) along the way. In a place with a less hallowed look to it, you probably wouldn't think twice about such stumbles, but with nothing on the walls to distract you from your food, I'm afraid you can't help but notice.
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