A play isn't a text - it's an event. Gary Rhodes understands this concept, and applies it to food. When he opened Rhodes Twenty Four, his new restaurant in the City of London, he wanted to introduce a bit of theatre. Hence the backdrop. From the 24th floor of the former NatWest Tower (now known as Tower 42), the City unfurls beneath you. Well, you are 590ft in the air. And on a clear day, you can see the English Channel. The place smells new. And, at the end of service, the staff are still picking the fluff off the carpets. Everything, down to the lilac staff uniform, fits into the "artichoke" colour palette. It's a tribute to Rhodes' hero, Guy Savoy.
Rhodes apparently still smiles when he remembers Savoy's artichoke soup, with its shavings of truffle and parmesan. "I didn't want to eat it too fast," he has said. No wonder - it was £50. "When people ask me to justify £50 for a bowl of soup, I say, 'How many meals have you had? How many do you remember?' I've never forgotten that meal. It was the best £50 I ever spent."
The food at Rhodes Twenty Four is considerably more affordable - even though it caters for the expense-account diners of the Square Mile. The menu is simple and straightforward. Like Savoy, Rhodes isn't one of those chefs who offers the palate too many sensations to handle. He uses a few ingredients to full effect, most of them are British at its best.
I started with the individual braised oxtail cottage pie. Because it can be extremely tough (depending on the age of the animal), an ox tail requires a long, slow braising. And it takes 20lbs of ox tail to produce 4lbs of usable meat. At £9.80, it's clear that the best of British doesn't come cheap. But the wisp of buttery mashed potato sat atop the thin pastrycase rammed full of sweet tail meat was the kind of dish I could eat every day of my life.
Certain dishes need explaining. Like fried pork and gammon crubeens (£9.80) - I suppose "crubeens" sound nicer than pig's trotters, but unless you're from Dublin you'll be none the wiser. The meat (there is more meat on a hind trotter) is fried in breadcrumbs, so that the crisp shell gives way to a doughy interior, ribbed with fatty meat. This was more than comfort food - this was food that was a real shoulder to cry on.
Even though mutton is just lamb with a deal more flavour, it has a definite image problem. Rhodes couldn't find the five-year-old mutton he wanted, so had to settle on three-year-old instead. He steamed it with onions inside a silky suet pudding - beef suet, of course, to give it an extra sweetness - which arrived with a tray of three sauces. Unfortunately, our glum French waitress was too busy to explain what they were.
Having closed his other restaurants, for now, this is the end of Rhodes' empire. So he might want to take another look at the turkey consommé (£7.50). Some chefs add vegetables for clarification. Not Rhodes. Or Escoffier. They say that the vegetables just disguise the natural aroma. And this consommé's aroma certainly was wonderful. But it needed more salt, and more Madeira - more everything.
The consommé was served with an intense cranberry and chestnut pate - like Christmas on a slice of buttered toast. But the highlight of dinner was the roast bitter duck (£19.50). The skin of the bird was burnt. It's a trick I've managed at home. But Rhodes does it deliberately. The duck's bitterness, enhanced by treacle, sat well with the spicy purée of parsnip and date, and one single roast potato, soft and tender enough to cut with a pair of chop sticks.
The ambient music was wrong. And the staff were lacklustre. I like to see people motivated, totally into their vocation, but the men and women in lilac were filling in time until something better came along. Apart from the sommelier - who, ironically, was the one member of staff with an excuse for being lacklustre. It's not great being a sommelier on the 24th floor when you suffer from vertigo.
So much of taste is memory, and Rhodes still delights in pulling those strings. Especially with desserts like Jaffa Cake pudding and rhubarb and custard. He decided to put his signature bread and butter pudding on the menu (£7.50), but with a twist. He replaced the burnt bread, which gives the pudding its bittersweet quality, with a brûlée. The result was too much residual sugar. Served with bread and butter ice cream, and bread and butter custard it was a tricksy conceit that I preferred to chocolate capuccino cups and marzipan spoons. It made me smile almost as much as the glum French waitress saying "roly poly" (it sounded like an Italian coastal resort). And the large jug of steaming custard that she brought with it. That was all the theatre I ever wanted from a restaurant - enough custard for a grown man. I'm not complicated. E
SECOND HELPINGS - IN THE CITY
By Caroline Stacey
Bevis Marks Restaurant
Attached to the beautiful and ancient Bevis Marks synagogue, this restaurant brings flair to kosher lunching and evening snacking. You don't have to be Jewish...
Bevis Marks Synagogue, London EC3 (020-7283 2220)
Grand Café and Bar
Try Pousse en Claire oysters (£15 for 6) for the first time in Britain at Conran's seafood café in the Royal Exchange building. Champagne, wine and cocktails accompany these rare delicacies.
The Royal Exchange, London EC3 (020-7618 2480)
A smooth operator run by ex-MPW guys. Hits all the right buttons with crab cakes, ribeye steak and horseradish potatoes, a fine cheeseboard and impressive service. An asset in the area.
109-117 Middlesex Street, London E1 (020-7247 5050)
MPW's foothold in the Square Mile occupies what was City Rhodes. With fish and chips, grilled Dover sole, etc, the cooking is aimed squarely at City appetites and expense accounts.
1 New Street Square, London EC4 (020-7583 1313)Reuse content