I have been told that connoisseurs frown on cocktails; these, they say, are a nasty hangover from the excesses of 1920s America, an overreaction to Prohibition, which deaden the palate. That may be so, but no one drinking black velvets at Sweetings - a fish restaurant on the West End side of the City - is too worried about how their meal will taste. You go there, in the first place, not for the food, but for its gusto and plain, old-fashioned elegance.
Sweetings began as a fishmonger before evolving, in the early decades of the century, into a restaurant. Tell-tale signs give its origins away: a great altar of marble in the window and a mosaic floor, all the colours of the sea. My companion tried to convince me that what he called the restaurant's "splashiness" - the unusual amount of ice and water around, keeping wine cool in large stone and metal basins - was a throwback to days when fish was sold on the slab. He is an enthusiast for the place, once spending a morning in its kitchen, and he regaled me with stories of its eccentricity. Waiters arrive early and work hard polishing its brass fittings; the cool-room is still chilled by large blocks of ice. There is one large, well-like room, with three bars, where busy bankers grab a plate of prawns, salmon and cucumber sandwiches, or (less wisely) scampi and bacon. If you have time, there is a den at the back with tables, where the pace is a good deal slower. Tablecloths, like the waiter's uniforms, are white, blinds off-white, walls yellowing and glossy. All in all, it feels like one of Edmund Burke's "little platoons": unplanned, and slowly- evolved, but comfortable and entirely efficient.
If this restaurant was anywhere else, it would have succumbed to ersatz-ness long ago. There are places not unlike this in Paris, such as L'Ami Louis, or Brasserie Flo - small, varnished, railway coaches, preserved just as they were 60 years ago. You eat better in these than you do in the City, but the tourists and cool Parisians who frequent them give them the feel of stage sets - themed Frenchness. Sweetings, though, is different. The credit, I am afraid, goes to the bankers who make up most of its clientele; they are too unaware of what is going on around them, too busy earning money, to realise quite what a treasure they have in their midst. They use the restaurant unself-consciously, like a canteen, which is just how it needs to be used.
You can't book at Sweetings, so diners mill around in the main room, drinking and waiting for a table or a place at the bar. Angelo, a large Italian pregnant with fried plaice and chips, presides over the room at the back and he quickly found us a table. After our black velvets, we began with a dressed crab and a plate of potted shrimps - each just as it should be - both washed down with Macon Lugny, 1994. This was followed by salmon-rich but slightly watery fish-cakes, and a delicious smoked Finnan haddock with a poached egg. (Poached egg and cured fish is one of nature's happiest marriages, and one known to just about every European cuisine. The smoked ham that goes into Eggs Benedict makes for a carnivorous version of this). My partner denied I would be able to breath life into our once-frozen spinach, but with some lemon, pepper and melted butter, resurrection took place before his eyes. He finished with roes on toast, and a glass of port (another Sweetings staple), me with a fine apricot crumble. When we left at about 3.30pm, the place was beginning to close for the day - there was no sign of the Americans who, the maitre d' had suggested, would be taking the afternoon off to celebrate Independence Day.
The fish is fresh here, but the kitchen can be slightly heavy on oil and batter, and can't always be relied upon in the use of the steamer. My advice would be to keep it simple - the grilled Dover sole or turbot is good - or else go, as we did, for smoked fish and crustacea. We ordered cunningly, but would doubtless have done just as well with, say, cod's roe followed by lobster salad, or smoked salmon and then skate in black butter. Oysters, sadly, were not in season.
By the time we left, my companion was showing signs of the aphrodisiac effects of great quantities of seafood. Thinking fast - or as fast as a second bottle of Burgundy would allow - I claimed an appointment at the British Library, where I wanted to verify the exact definition of a cocktail. It had been raining when we arrived, but now the sun was out. We headed off in different directions, splashing through glinting puddles. We had eaten extravagantly and paid the price - pounds 50 a head not including service - but if you are careful, you could eat a three-course meal with wine for less than half of that, and still come away, as we did, pleased with life
Sweetings, 39 Queen Victoria Street, EC4 (0171-248 3062). 11am-3pm. Cash and cheques onlyReuse content