It's the battle of the restaurant superpowers. In one corner we have the born-again Scott's on Mount Street, owned by Caprice Holdings. In the other is the new St Alban on Regent Street, opened by Jeremy King and Chris Corbin, the pair who famously reinvented The Ivy, Le Caprice and J Sheekey - the very restaurants now owned by Caprice Holdings.
Now pay attention, because this gets confusing. Scott's now has all the comfort-food-in-buzzy-setting schtick that has long been the trademark of Corbin and King. And St Alban doesn't. So Scott's feels more like a Corbin and King restaurant than the latest Corbin and King restaurant. It even has that famous Corbin and King trademark, the bowler-hatted and top-coated superdoorman Sean McDermott, standing at the entrance.
Caprice Holdings have spared no horses with a refurbishment of the world-famous, 156 year-old seafood restaurant that has taken two years and millions of pounds to complete. The main room gathers itself around a large central oyster bar, offered rather like the magnificent bust of an Edwardian lady, bedecked in exotic stingray skin and topped with green onyx. Dolly birds and gay investment bankers sit up at the glossy bar nibbling on pork scratchings and almonds and eyeballing langoustines and Alaskan king crabs on ice.
Chef director Mark Hix is well known for his love of contemporary British artists, and some quite delicious art hangs on walls upstairs and down, privately leased from the likes of Michael Landy, Gary Hume, Gary Webb, Tracey Emin and Fiona Rae.
And yes, assorted YBAs are dotted among the ageing regulars throughout the oak-panelled dining-room to the rear, where tables are double-clothed and lush burgundy leather banquettes hug the walls.
Even the menu at the new Scott's is more Ivy than The Ivy and as capricious as Le Caprice, with a something-for-everyone, seafood-driven list that goes from five different types of oysters to Dover sole meunière, and cod tongues with ceps (yes, of course, cod have tongues). As well, there is a back-up cast of meatier options such as Glen Fyne rib steak and chips, and wild duck with sprout tops.
If this were mainland Europe, the bar would be packed with diners instead of drinkers. Where are you all? I adore eating here, overseen by the dapper head barman, Edin Kulenovic (last seen at Le Caprice) and enjoying some panoramic 360-degree people-watching while I sip on chilled Gavi di Gavi and get stuck into a half pint of Atlantic prawns (£12.50).
Served in what looks like my silver christening mug, they are sweet and fresh and great fun, needing only a squeeze from the muslin-wrapped lemon and a swish through an old-fashioned Marie Rose sauce. More treats from the oyster bar include six gorgeously fleshy, briny Spéciales de Claire oysters (£12.75) and a bright little mound of diced stone-bass ceviche (£10.75) done in the Mexican style, served with little garnishes of coriander, chilli and red onion and spectacularly crisp, dry parsnip chips. After that, fresh-tasting fish and chips (£16.75) goes a long way to restoring some dignity to this much-abused genre.
Another night, and I'm playing grown-ups at the table, an elegant oval at the far end of the dining-room. Highlights include those intriguing cod tongues (£11.75), their gelatinous sweetbread-like texture teaming well with nutty ceps and buttery juices in a gleaming copper pan. To the side, three marrow-filled bones sit like three fat matrons, ready for a charabanc of toast. Also taken is a generous wedge of meaty, pan-fried skate wing (£17.50) dressed in burnt butter and accessorised with the cutest little periwinkles, as tiny as capers; and a platter of good, lush, smoked eel, served very plainly with a pile of parslied potatoes (£13.75). All these meaty, earthy, smoky qualities lead me to a spicy, lightly smoky 2005 Alana Pinot Noir from Martinborough in New Zealand (£47.50), which works well across the board.
Some dishes leave me cold. A rack of Shetland lamb (£22.75) feels tight and tastes fatty, and stargazy pie (£10.50), a Cornish curiosity in which pilchard heads poke through the golden pie crust, offers only a fishy, oily cream and no real pie experience. But I do love that the kitchen is going for the jugular of old-fashioned British cookery, and would not wish it otherwise. The pacing of meals can be slow, and prices are undoubtedly high, but I reckon Scott's is a winner. The best thing about the place is its very London form of energy, that makes it as buzzy as a barrelful of electric eels, so you can't help but have more fun than a day at the seaside.
My table-neighbours, regular customers of Scott's for 35 years, had been expecting the refurb to be all minimalist and modern. "It's quite comfortable," they sigh with relief over their enormous grilled turbot, looking around at the deep carpet, the gleaming silverware, and the fine upholstery work.
On a recent visit, even the aforementioned Jeremy King was overheard saying that Scott's was his kind of restaurant. He's right. It is. s
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
Scott's, 20 Mount Street, London W1, tel: 020 7495 7309. Lunch and dinner daily. Around £150 for two, including wine and service
Second helpings: More oyster bars
Café Royal Oyster Bar 17A West Register Street, Edinburgh, tel: 0131 556 4124 With its marbled floors, stained glass and gilded cornices, Café Royal is like a stage set, starring platters of local oysters, Scottish salmon and grilled langoustines.
Bentley's Oyster Bar and Grill 11-15 Swallow Street, London W1, tel: 020 7734 4756 Recently given a new lease of life by Richard Corrigan, this Mayfair landmark has kept much of its original feel - from the wooden panelling to the personal napkin rails under the marble bar.
English's Restaurant and Oyster Bar 29-31 East St, Brighton, tel: 01273 327 980 For more than 60 years, the Leigh-Jones family has been serving up native oysters, dressed crab and Dover sole to everyone from Charlton Heston to members of Franz Ferdinand.
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