The Dover sole is a perfectly nice, totally decent fish, but does it really deserve the reverential, hand on your heart and touch your forelock treatment it gets in this country? The stiff upper British lip trembles with excitement at the mere mention of its name. My slightly less British lip has always trembled at the price, but I'm not sure that's the same thing. Now, however, I have not just eaten Dover sole, I have feasted on it. I have experienced my sole epiphany. Sole is the only fish for me, etc, etc.
This dropping of the penny occurred at the newly revived Bentley's in London's Swallow Street, as I faced Richard Corrigan's simply grilled, unsauced and unadorned Dover sole (£23). Skinned, partially filleted and artfully presented with its top flesh immodestly parted, and accompanied only by a muslin-wrapped half lemon, it was at once utterly fresh-tasting with a subtle, deep-seated sweetness and fine, delicate texture. It was an event of a fish, an occasion in itself. At last, I got it.
The much-publicised updating of this iconic 89-year-old establishment is the latest in a string of historic fish restaurant revivals. Corbin & King did it first at J Sheekey eight years ago. Marco Pierre White later revamped Wheeler's of St James's, and now Scott's in Mayfair is undergoing a major makeover courtesy of Caprice Holdings.
For the Irish-born Corrigan, best known as the Michelin-starred chef of Soho's Lindsay House, this has been something of a personal journey. Having cooked in some of London's finest modern Mediterranean restaurants, he joined Bentley's as chef back in 1993, in an effort, as he puts it, to "get away from the chickpeas". Now he's back, and so, incidentally, are the chickpeas, which accompany a starter of grilled langoustine.
Downstairs, Corrigan and his partners have given the charming, old-fashioned oyster bar a proper scrub out, but kept much of its original feel with its wooden panelling, marble bar and personal napkin rails. The upstairs dining room, known as The Grill, has been designed to look old-fashioned, which is not as chic as actually being old-fashioned. Glass doors at the top of a panelled stairway open to two rooms, seriously wallpapered and wooden-floored, with white-clothed tables and studded, leather chairs.
It's all a bit sedate, with doors seemingly everywhere, heading into kitchens and private rooms. In these early days, floor staff tend to wander in and out aimlessly. It is only when the ebullient Corrigan strides into the room that you get any energy, cheer, or sense of welcome.
His spirit pervades the menu too, with its premium produce and mix of modern and traditional. In the bar, it's all oysters, home-cured herrings, fish pie and Guinness rarebit. Upstairs, it's crab brûlée and monkfish with cep duxelle. Corrigan's meatier métier is given free rein with the likes of steamed Elwy valley lamb pudding, bone marrow and rump burger, and a full-on mixed grill (£16.50) complete with suckling-pig sausage, beef fillet, belly pork, lamb chop, lamb's kidney and herb-topped tomato.
It's very, very good, from the succulent lamb chop to the pink, minerally kidney. If the sausage had not been soft and crumbly, it would have displaced The Square, 1997, as The Greatest Mixed Grill Ever. There are no side orders listed on the menu, but mossy spinach and mange tout and small boiled potatoes arrive, included in the price.
Bentley's wine list is a multi-faceted joy. I particularly like the idea of having a separate Wines of the Sea section, with fish-friendly styles such as Picpoul, Muscadet and Bandol Blanc. A Galician Terra Gauda (£6 glass) is fresh and floral, and an impressive 2003 Australian Shadowfax pinot noir (£39.95) is fragrant and earthy.
In comparison to the excellence of the main courses, the starters lack the wow factor. An unadorned serving of Frank Hederman's famed smoked salmon from Cork (£11) is neat but minuscule. Those who love the rich, oily, soft, silky, mouth-filling style of smoked salmon - like me - won't ooh and aah over it.
The grilled langoustines with chickpeas and olive oil come shelled; four tender tails nestling in a rubble of tiny chickpeas bathed in (too much) rich olive oil. They are sensitively cooked, but expensive at £13.95.
For pud, I wait an age, and then pull two duds. A Cox apple pudding with calvados custard (£6.50) is overcooked and shrunken in its cute copper pan, while a clementine and medjool date "salad" (£6.50) is gauche and untogether. Forget the fruit, and go for the accompanying lemon curd and good, light, golden waffles instead.
There is a lot to enjoy at the new Bentley's, however. The very good far outweighs the not so good, and things will probably even get better, especially if Corrigan keeps up his presence, and chef Brendan Farlyn keeps a certain grilled fish on the menu. It's not the sole reason to go there, but it's a damned good one. s
Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 OK 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
Bentley's Oyster Bar and Grill, 11-15 Swallow Street, London W1 tel: 020 7734 4756
Lunch and dinner served daily. Around £120 for two including drinks and service.
Second helpings: Oyster bars
Green's 36 Duke Street, SW1, tel: 020 7930 4566
The mahogany panelling and leather banquettes make Green's look older than its 25 years. Regulars keep coming back for the charm, the service, the smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, the smoked haddock "Parker Bowles", and of course, the oysters.
Rogano Restaurant and Oyster Bar 11 Exchange Place, Glasgow, tel: 0141 248 4055
Fitted out in luxury-liner fashion, this 70-year-old icon drips with Art Deco glamour. Take oysters and champagne in the oyster bar or dine on assiettes of shellfish and lobster thermidor in the more formal restaurant.
Wheelers Oyster Bar
8 High Street, Whitstable, Kent, tel: 01227 273 311
This simple seaside dining room is charming, cosy, and utterly devoid of airs and graces. You'd be mad not to try the renowned local oysters, but the potted shrimps, fish soup and baked cod are good fall-backs.Reuse content