Why did they do it? Sob. Why did they kill Bambi's mum, thereby traumatising generations of children? Some have never gotten over it and still run screaming from the room whenever they are confronted with a plate of venison, pheasant or rabbit. The rest of us have never gotten over it either, but now run screaming into any room that offers roe venison in pastry with pickled cabbage, butter-poached pheasant with chestnut, bacon and cabbage, grouse pie with ceps, and mallard à l'orange.
Trust Richard Corrigan, Britain's favourite Irish chef, to open his brand new Mayfair restaurant in the middle of the huntin', shootin', fishin' season. Corrigan was born to cook wild, gutsy, autumnal food, and his opening menu is so densely packed with game and wild mushrooms, it is like trekking through the forest.
After years of hard graft at Lindsay House in Soho, and rejuvenating the famous Bentley's oyster bar, Corrigan has bitten the bullet and put his own name over the door of this smart, ever-so-Mayfair space (part of, but not really part of, the Grosvenor Hotel). It's Lindsay House luxed-up and made modern, with a subtle hunting-lodge twist to the clubby Ivy-Wolseley-Scott's big-spender's décor. A long stretch of handsome bar (for dining as well as drinking) segues into a low-ceilinged and slightly airless dining-room, moodily lit by faux-nouveau lighting. It's all very polished, with oak floors, comfortable banquettes, body-hugging boys' club chairs, fine napery, classy glassware, lampshades that shimmy with feathers, and two agreeable private rooms lined with antlers. This is a restaurant that means business, and pleasure.
Corrigan's cooking isn't simple. So suckling pig sausage with oyster and duck tongue (£9.50) is no Frenchy sizzle of hot sausage and cold oyster, but a dainty dish of four little rounds of fine-grained sausage, each topped with a warm, plump poached oyster and a crisp shard of duck tongue. Soft sea-sweet flavours, oyster juices and aromas – blimey, this is fabulous cooking.
Likewise, a salad of game birds with Romesco sauce (£8) is a pretty tangle of pumpkin flesh, pea sprouts, frisée, and slivers of mallard, pigeon and pheasant. At last, a way of celebrating game that isn't just a slab on the plate, but something light, festive, fruity, peppery and nutty; again, fabulous cooking.
It's beginning to look like there isn't a dud on the menu. I doubt there's one of the wine list, either, another beautiful read brought to life by sommelier Andrea Briccarello's simpatico service. Knowing we have ordered both fish and game, he leads me to a 2006 Domaine Dureuil-Janthial Bourgogne Rouge that is so lush, silky and ripe, it's hard to put the glass down long enough to eat.
Large plaice in almond crumb (£18) is a surprise, the fish fried into a perfect golden-crusted briquette, then halved and swept by a creamy wave of clams and langoustine. With its tidal drift of whelk and clam shells, it's a walk on the beach.
Grouse pie, ceps (£21) has been given the Wellington treatment, with two fat, rested, tender half-breasts sandwiching foie gras, enveloped in a skin of fine pastry, sent out with a few random cep mushrooms and a deep-flavoured jus. It's stupendous, delicious, and as rich as Croesus, with the lovely earthy, vaguely dirty flavours coming and coming.
Desserts are just as well-formed and seasonal, with quince fashioned into a tart (£7.50) and served with a sensational Sauternes and raisin ice-cream.
Corrigan has made just the right move, for him and for us. His voice booms from the kitchen, revving up the silky French floor staff. He and head chef Chris McGowan work their food not to death, but to life, packing it full of sensual flavours and surprises. There is generosity, Irish economy, simplicity and extra thought behind every refinement, making a table here one of Britain's best.
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
Corrigan's Mayfair, 28 Upper Grosvenor Street, London W1, tel: 020 7499 9943. Lunch, Mon-Fri; dinner, daily. Around £110 for two, including wine and service.
The crunch bunch: More Irish inspirations
The Sands End
135-137 Stephendale Road, London SW6, tel: 020 7731 7823
This pub describes the cooking of chef Liam Kirwan as "Great British food with an Irish heart", hence the poached salmon with chive mash, and pheasant casserole
140 Main Street, Bushmills, County Antrim, tel: 028 2073 1044
A warm bar and restaurant with a nice mix of traditional and modern Irish cooking, from Ballycastle scallops with Wysner's black pudding to dry-aged Irish rib steak
The Winding Stair
40 Lower Ormond Quay, Dublin, tel: (00) 353 1 8727 320
This frenetic Dublin favourite combines the comfortable ease of a gastropub and loud bonhomie of a local boozer, with a menu of hearty Irish home cooking