Richard Caring's new hotel and restaurant used to house a branch of the Pitcher & Piano chain, a spiritless wine bar past which one used to hurry without any desire to join its clientele of onanists and poseurs. The Dean Street Townhouse, by contrast, brings style and warmth to the heart of Soho, and you can't move for people trying to get in.
Walk through the entrance on a face-slicingly cold, snowy lunchtime, and you feel instantly at home. Caring and Nick Jones have taken the best bits of their respective empires and melded them seamlessly together: vintage class meets modern arty hangout; J Sheekey meets Soho House. Check out the wooden floors and monochrome tiles, the pale-green-with-white-spots walls, the trendy artworks by Mat Collishaw and Peter Blake, the charming caricatures of Soho sacred monsters from Jeff Bernard to Shane MacGowan – how well they all go together. Marvel at the long wood bar, lit by little lamps, and the array of wine bottles inside lead-glazed wooden cupboards. The mirror has been "distressed", to look as though it's been a fixture for years. The dining-room is all low-slung banquettes in red leather with white tablecloths and dagger-like cutlery. There's a distinctly boudoir feel to the private dining area: look closely at the red wallpaper's leaf design, and you'll find it's full of naked bottoms. As I say, this isn't a place you feel like leaving in a hurry. Then you open the menu, and feel a crushing disappointment.
What on earth? Fish and chips with marrowfat peas. Fillet of cod. Mince and boiled potatoes. ("Mince"? Not even "ragu" but "mince"?) Starters include avocado with prawns, pressed ham with piccalilli, onion tart... To call this pub/nursery grub unadventurous would be like calling Russell Brand a bit of a ladies' man. Then you spot the "Savouries" section just before the puddings, and it becomes clear: this restaurant is a throwback to a gentleman's club, the Savile or Garrick, in the 1970s, sensible British food with no messed-about Frenchy muck or foreign nonsense.
Unenthusiastically I ordered twice-baked smoked haddock soufflé. It was the size, hue and shape of a crème caramel, drenched with a buttery chive sauce, and was absolutely gorgeous, soft and light as a dream, while the smokiness of the fish came through robustly. My friend Adam's Dorset crab mayonnaise was perfectly cooked, the white crabmeat miraculously fluffy, with a fine rouille of tomato and paprika on the side. "If I'd been served this in Sheekey's," he said, "I'd be very pleased." Even the garnish – finely sliced cucumber and fennel with chopped dill and a final dab of oil – came in for praise.
Since the Townhouse was so determinedly blokey, I ordered their only signature dish, the Townhouse mixed grill. How could they do anything new to this trencherman's feast? But they did, by bringing out the unique flavours of all the constituent parts. The Cumberland sausage was taut and peppery like the handmade sausages in my childhood. The bacon was both crunchy and sweet. The fillet steak was juicily perky. No lamb cutlet in history was as tender as this lamb cutlet (had they marinaded it in lamb stock for hours?). The kidney was cooked à point, and carried a faint whiff of pee, not unpleasantly. The liver was as disgusting as I've always found liver to be, and I gave the lion's share to my companion ("Delicious, John," he said, shaking his head at my folly). And the bubble'n'squeak was a delicious foil, if a touch lumpy. Most mixed grills are served without any liquid agent. Here, a lovely savoury jus kept everything moistened and enriched. How did they do that?
Adam's red-leg partridge, with braised lentils and root vegetables, was hearty and tender but surprisingly light. "Lovely cold-weather stuff," said Adam, "and terribly English – apart from the lentils." Savoy cabbage offered some nice friction, while roasted sliced parsnips stood in for game chips.
We washed it all down with an £18 carafe of Argentine Malbec, and agreed that if this was an example of whiskery clubland cuisine, we were signing up forthwith. Unable to resist, we shared a £10 sherry trifle for two, which arrived in a glass chalice, its lovely colours glowing like sunset over Montego Bay. What can you say about Manzanilla-drenched sponge, cooked sliced plums, custard, nuts, cream and bits of meringue? Nothing. We devoured it in silence. "It's not a word I use much," said Adam afterwards, "but cor..."
I couldn't agree more. The Townhouse is self-consciously old-fashioned in many ways, but its appeal is straight to the stomach and the heart, in that order. It brings out the greedy schoolboy in the most sophisticated media tart. If ever there's a London restaurant to enter out of the winter snow and fall in love with, this is it.
Dean Street Townhouse, 69-71 Dean Street, London W1 (020-7434 1775)
About £120 for two with wine
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary; all of the service charge and the tips go to the staff"
Side Orders: True Brits
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