Judging from a meal last week at Bentley's in Piccadilly, this reviewer thinks the owner should award the chef a refrigeration system from Switzerland, stoves from France, bread from Poilane, and salmon line-caught by the Prince of Wales himself. The food is superb.
It was not always thus with the young chef, nor the 75-year-old fish restaurant that now employs him. One-part oyster bar and one-part restaurant, the establishment was run by the Bentley family for sixty years, before being bought and sold several times by catering corporations. It was refurbished some years ago with an eye for comfort, if not character, though piles of Victorian clutter looks original. All it needs now, say staff, is '50 years of cigarette smoke'.
Several staff survive from the old regime. The barman, a veteran of 20 years, might tell you how the last of the Bentley family to own the restaurant tried to get out of paying for a round of drinks one night, snuck out back, fell down the stairs and died.
The newest owners seem intent on putting Bentley's back on the map. Four months ago, they hired the 28-year-old Irish chef Richard Corrigan. A long tour of duty in a string of distinguished London restaurants such as Le Meridien hotel and Stephen Bull in Marylebone has not dented his peaty accent. Then, as cook for Mulligan's of Mayfair, he became professionally Celtic, and his cooking was hamstrung by the restaurant's abject devotion to things Irish.
Mr Corrigan now serves what he likes. A price of pounds 6.50 might seem steep for herring salad, until you consider that you would have to go to Holland (where Mr Corrigan worked) to find anything comparable. Fresh Cornish herring is given the lightest salt cure, so tastes fresh enough for a sushi bar. Its fillets come on a superb salad, in which diced potatoes have been cooked in a wine, shallot and wine vinegar reduction, then tossed with a dice of grilled bacon.
As a description, a 'light mousse of hake' needs adjusting. Rather, it has guts and texture from braised fennel. Serving it with a green lentil salad made some sense. Chilli oil did not.
As a main course, 'peppered tuna with artichoke and essence of morels' is worth its pounds 16.50, though some economy might be made on the pepper. Lovely fresh cod, fried with a thick crush of Parmesan and basil, arrives simply with chips and remoulade sauce. My chips could have been crisper, but a side-order of mash was as decadent and pleasing as mash can get. Salad leaves, from Park Hill Farm in Kent, are first class.
Puddings get mixed scores, mostly high. Treacle tart with clotted cream: excellent. Lemon brule with lime sorbet: very good. A platter of boozy dark chocolate concoctions: superb. Tarte Tatin: needs improvement. Service, from all quarters, is delightful.
SINCE Caroline Brett left the west London restarant 192 more than a year ago, I have resisted reviewing her cooking. We are friends. This highbrow stance has become an absurdity: a failure to give due credit to one of London's best new kitchens in its class.
It is O'Keefe's, a six-month-old cafe-cum-delicatessen off Oxford Street. By appearances, it could be in New York. Walls are glass, displays are lean and handsome. Generous sandwiches are served. Look more closely, and O'Keefe's could be in Italy: there might well be a gutsy Tuscan bean soup on, or tender osso bucco. Tarts (almond and cognac, for instance) are delicious.
Last week, O'Keefe's opened for a trial dinner service. Three generous courses cost pounds 13.50, and a short wine list includes a delicious new pinot noir from California: La Crema. This first trial was a success. Ring for details about futher dinner sessions.
O'Keefe's also comprises a small delicatessen, selling things that Ms Brett and her sous-chef, Sam Russell, like. So there is Cotherstone cheese from County Durham, loosely set with a fresh tang, caper berries, organic smoked bacon, hand made chocolates from Devon, risotto rice and excellent balsamic vinegar.
NOT since the Victorians made tartan a Scottish emblem has it been used with such abandon as you will find in Wilson's, a handsome corner local in Shepherd's Bush. The tablecloths are tartan, the curtains are tartan, the host's kilt is tartan. Certain Scots might find it a bit much: the gustatory equivalent of a heraldic plaque factory. Myself, I like it. The room is remarkably pretty. Next to us a priest and his companion relaxed over Sunday lunch and claret after morning service,a picture from a gentle, rather traditional Britain.
Story-book Scottishness is not just in the weave of the decorations. The menu includes Angus Aberdeen beef, venison, finnan haddie, lobster, salmon, even Atholl brose.
Some of the dishes are perfectly pleasing and a mite old-fashioned, such as Scottish lobster baked into a puff pastry case. New wave for this dish is its garlicky sauce. A finnan haddock pudding, perched on rice, came with a bacon salad, good greens and cooling sauce. Two good pieces of calf's liver were rather over-done, but went well enough with their mustard and ginger sauce. Strips of beef served in a rich port sauce with mushrooms were tough and the sauce undistinguished.
Two not-so-Scottish dishes showed little understanding of their ingredients, or suffered from poor execution. Delicate Parma ham was partnered not just with melon, but an overpowering Roquefort cream. An assembly of perfect young salad leaves, soft- boiled quails eggs and anchovies suffered from a bland tuna mayonnaise and excess water.
Puddings were very good: Atholl brose, a sort of whisky fool, was grainy with oats. Chocolate and orange mousse was spot-on; likewise peaches poached in brandy with ice-cream and a nice red pool of raspberry sauce. Among the well-priced wines is the Guigal Cotes du Rhone at pounds 12 a bottle, pounds 6.25 a half.
Hospitality at Wilson's is correct, yet exceedingly warm. It would be easy to linger well past closing time, at least until the taped bagpipe music is popped into the cassette machine.
Bentley's, 11-15 Swallow Street, W1 (071-734 4756). Vegetarian meals. Children welcome. Oyster bar open 12noon-10pm Mon-Sat. Restaurant open lunch and dinner Mon-Sat. Oyster bar, approx pounds 20 per head for two courses, wine, coffee, service and VAT; restaurant from pounds 30-pounds 40. Major credit cards.
O'Keefe's, 19 Dering Street, W1 (071-495 0878). Children welcome; special portions. Open 8am-5pm Mon-Fri, 10am-5pm Sat. Minimum charge pounds 6 for table service. Lunch from pounds 8-pounds 15. Cash and cheques only.
Wilson's, 236 Blythe Road, W14 (071-603 7267). Children welcome, vegetarian meals. Set weekday lunches pounds 10; three courses, wine, coffee, service and VAT approx pounds 20-pounds 30. Lunch and dinner Tues-Fri and lunch Sun. Access, Visa, Amex.Reuse content