In late 1945, the British Council commissioned George Orwell to write an article called "British Cookery". Though it was never published, in it Orwell captured a peculiar mood of English despondency. Rationing, the drudgery of war, and the Depression of the inter-war years had voided our diet of its previous lustre, so that many classic dishes and wonderful ingredients became the preserve of the aristocracy.
Now the national cuisine, reflecting the temper of the people, was exhausted. Orwell described it as "simple, rather heavy, perhaps slightly barbarous". The article, though variously positive, is studded with gloomy statements: "British pastry is not outstandingly good." "Fish in Britain is seldom well cooked."
Five years later, Elizabeth David published a book which did much to deepen the gloom. Though, perhaps more than any other writer of her generation, she created the dinner party, giving great swathes of people the confidence to cook spectacular dishes. David's A Book of Mediterranean Food implored this nation of middle-class cooks to raise their horizons and be inspired by the exquisite dishes not of England, but the European south.
In recent years, however, there has been a remarkable revival of English cuisine. This can be traced back not to The Great British Bake Off, or Mary Berry, but an extraordinary work called English Food, published by Arabella Boxer in 1991. Precisely because of her aristocratic pedigree, and her exposure to the best of English cuisine in the inter-war years, Boxer attached modern ingredients to a tradition that stretched back to the Middle Ages. With immense erudition, she rescued all manner of herbs and spices from oblivion, celebrated local game, and brought new fame to recipes that long ago reigned in palaces and stately homes.
Everywhere in our food scene today, you find evidence of the Boxer rebellion. And GrEAT British feels to me like a temple devoted to it. It's basically a posh workers' café that serves British wine, with black-and-white tile flooring that makes you feel as though you're eating atop a giant chessboard. The walls are grained dark mahogany, the upholstery is the same, and whiter tablecloths you'll never see. The all-female staff sport pressed aprons and (as you'd expect) their hair is tied in neat buns. I half-expect Mr Carson off Downton Abbey to sidle up and ask whether everything is to Sir's satisfaction. In a downstairs toilet, the wallpaper sheets declaim the best of Richard III.
For Mayfair, it's affordable: full English breakfast for under a tenner, two courses at lunch for £21.50, and three for £27.50.
The starters are magnificent. You can have seared lamb's liver and lamb faggots with bacon and celeriac; white-onion soup with spiced curried fritter; potted salt beef with pickles and sourdough toast; and, best of all, exquisite kedgeree with smoked haddock and a quail's egg of unimprovable flavour and moisture.
I move on to a Loch Duart salmon with pearl barley and oxtail. Boy, oh boy, I wish I could raise Orwell from his eternal slumber, sit him beside me and ask if he still believes fish in Britain is seldom well cooked. This is a magisterial bit of flaky pink flesh, and the almost-sweet, deeply spiced pearl barley is just magic. Vegetarians can get a Sussex cheese sausage with bubble and squeak; carnivores can have either Maize Farm Longhorn beef or Yorkshire saddleback pork loin, both with all the trimmings.
Naturally I feel sceptical on reading of apple crumble with "proper" custard on the menu, but it is a sensational and sweet sauce. The chocolate pudding with the now ubiquitous salted caramel and hazelnuts is very good, too.
George Hammer (who brought L'Occitane, Aveda and the Sanctuary to the UK) and Tony Zoccola (East Dulwich Deli) say they opened GrEAT British because it was so hard to find great British food in London. Now, evidence of our native cuisine's revival can be seen far beyond the capital. But their elegant restaurant and simple, solid dishes, strike me as something like an apogee of that revival. Whatever the opposite of "simple, rather heavy, perhaps slightly barbarous" is, this place is it.
SCORES: 1-3 STAY AT HOME AND COOK, 4 NEEDS HELP, 5 DOES THE JOB, 6 FLASHES OF PROMISE, 7 GOOD, 8 CAN'T WAIT TO GO BACK, 9-10 AS GOOD AS IT GETS
GrEAT British, 14 North Audley Street, London W1, tel: 020 7741 2233 Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. About £65 for lunch for two without alcohol
Best of British
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