Remember the woodchopper's favourite axe? It may have had three new heads, and four new handles, but it had been in the family for generations, and by gum, he wouldn't change it for the world.
That seems to be how we feel about London's legendary centenarian restaurants – places such as Scott's, first opened in 1851 as an oyster warehouse, and trading out of its current premises in Mount Street since the 1960s, dispensing reassuringly unmucked-about-with oysters and Dover sole, and an equally reassuring sense of upper-middle-class Englishness.
But being a legend doesn't make it any easier to survive in the modern marketplace. Hence, we have Marco Pierre White running Wheelers and The Criterion, Gordon Ramsay running the dining-rooms of Claridges and The Connaught, the Signature Group running J Sheekey, and so on.
Until a couple of months ago, Scott's was owned by Chez Gérard. Now it has been taken over by the Home House Group, which is currently tackling the delicate task of renovation without too much innovation.
In other words, the place still feels Scott's-like, and comparisons with grand ocean-liner dining-rooms still hold true. I'd even wager that the people eating here tonight are, by and large, the same people who have been eating here since time immemorial. At least I now know where all those navy, gold- buttoned blazers have gone. I hadn't seen one for years, and suddenly I'm surrounded by about 50 of them. It's rather sweet.
The vast, split-level dining-room still awaits carpet on the floor and mirrors on columns, and Liberace-big flowers distract from on-going work. The walls are pale green – rarely a good colour for restaurants, and no better here – and are now hung with a "personal" selection of framed paintings and prints, à la Rules. There are portraits of a fish and a country gentleman over my table, in some sort of symmetry of landed fish and gentry.
While many of the old retainer staff have been retained, Home House has appointed a new manager and head sommelier, and a chef by the name of Michael McEnearney, previously executive chef at Notting Hill's Pharmacy and head chef of Sydney's ground-breaking Rockpool. But how does a chef more accustomed to Chinese red-braised pork hock and baby squid with braised arrocina beans and chorizo, tackle traditional English fayre?
Quite easily, from the look of the menu. It's wall-to-wall Mayfair favourites, with its requisite oyster selection, dressed crab, crustacea plate, fish pie and Dover sole either grilled, à la meunière or Colbert. The traditional emphasis on fish and seafood has been retained, with seasonal and standard meat offerings such as roast grouse and Scotch sirloin steak "Café de Paris". McEnearney slips his oars into the rowlocks with a twice-baked goat's cheese soufflé, Rockpool-inspired steamed oysters with ginger and mirin, and the addition of beetroot and anchovy to an otherwise plain veal chop.
Mr Earl's eels (£12.50) make a fine starter, from the ring-a-rosy of baby potatoes and nest of watercress to the generous knots of long, thin, smoked eel fillets. Mr Earl can be pleased with his sourcing and smoking. The meat is firm, lightly scented, with just enough oil to coat the bottom lip. Similarly, a dish of a five Dublin Bay prawns (langoustines) piled up in their full regalia next to a bowl of overly garlicky mayo (£17.50) is good plain food, always a test of decent shopping.
It takes a skilled chef to turn something inherently Sunday night into something Saturday night. McEnearney does it with "Scott's famous fish pie" (£14.95), which comes in a deep bowl crowned with golden, wavy mashed potato. It's a scuba-diver's pie – the deeper you dive, the better it gets. There is none of that stodgy, floury heaviness normally associated with the genre; just a light sauce of cream, vermouth and fish stock coating a bite-sized catch of smoked halibut, cod and salmon all lightly cooked and still tasting of themselves.
The aforementioned veal chop (£21) is served with velvety anchovy sauce and a gorgeous puddle of beetroot purée and baby beets. The veal is meltingly tender.
This is surprising, in light of the menu's pledge that produce is, wherever possible, organic, free-range, from sustainable sources and British. Later, I am informed the restaurant will replace the Dutch veal with organic veal from the Marlborough Estate.
Damson queen of puddings (£6.50) is a non-event, too squidgy below and rigid on top to be any fun. It's back to form with a generous scooping of Colston Basset Stilton (£6.50) served with a huge basket of cheese biscuits and a veritable vase of fresh celery.
Weaknesses: staff leaving dirty plates in full view on a side table; lack of menu knowledge (who's Mr Earl?); hideous seashell decor. Strengths: McEnearney's solid skills in buying and cooking; the energy and sympathetic nature of sommelier Sylvain Boudou; the new accessibility of "English fayre".
It's a work in progress, but I'm scoring it a "solid professional" because McEnearney will pull it together. Once the refurbishment's finished and the staff settled in, I doubt Scott's will need a new head or handle for some time. *