The Delaunay, 55 Aldwych, London, WC2
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Saturday 14 January 2012
Simply walking into the Delaunay makes you feel you've found the perfect restaurant. Sited on the corner of Aldwych and Drury Lane, it hums with elegance. The rubicund doorman tips his top hat, a startlingly pretty Roedean-head-girl takes your coat and you enter a wide, welcoming, marble-floored space. To your right, a vast bar is lit up like a cathedral high altar; to your left is a line of tables for posers, chatterers, couples nursing cocktails. Riding on castors is a glass-topped trolley full of teatime cakes – millefeuille, Black Forest gâteau, sachertorte – in case someone fancies a sugar rush at 9pm. Beyond the grey pillars, you make out the dark, indefinably sexy interior where the serious eating goes on. Mein Gott, you think, das ist wunderbar.
Because you're looking here at a dream of Mitteleuropa sometime in the 1930s before it all went to rubble. A little bit Cabaret, a touch Habsburg dining-room, a soupçon Paris boulevard (check out the French antique clock, its face a distressed orange like a 1940s duchess) and a lot Viennese café.
The Delaunay's owners, Jeremy King and Chris Corbin, the nation's most polished and enterprising restaurateurs, have looked for inspiration to the grand cafés of Old Europe, as they did when launching The Wolseley in 2003. They were, effectively, turning their back on chef-led cuisine and returning to the cooking relished by our grandparents: English-French dishes with added Danube flavours: coq au vin and kedgeree, but with added choucroute a l'Alsacienne.
They offer the same blissful synthesis of cultures at The Delaunay, only with more Vienna. Look at the dark wood, the white napery, the stark chairs, the brass lamps, the gleams of light off the silver coffee jugs, and you feel like you're in The Third Man. You can practically hear the zither music.
The menu here is, as at The Wolseley, divided into sections: Soups, Starters, Eggs, Weiners, Crustacea and Caviar, Plats du Jours, Fish, Schnizels, Entrées, Savouries, Cakes, Coupés. The Delaunay aims to be an all-day operation and although I've heard 50 other restaurants utter the same doomed ambition, I suspect The Delaunay will get it right, because their food is all-day-ish: Eggs Benedict for breakfast, salt-beef pretzel for elevenses, Welsh rarebit for a late lunch, rhubarb and custard tart at teatime.
We ordered three starters, which was a mistake. I thought my smoked bacon and shallots tarte flambée would be a ramekin-size taster; it was a cartwheel-sized pizza, amazingly thin, crisp and delicious. Angie's baked Romano pepper disgorged spiced aubergine from its secret interior, the sweet pepper and spicy vegetable making a very Middle-Eastern marriage. I insisted we try a house weiner, assuming it would be a small frankfurter. It wasn't. It was a brace of steamed franks, each the size of a baby's arm, on a plate of sauerkraut, caramelised onions and potato salad. A smokily yummy treat – but we'd now eaten one pizza, two hot dogs and a stuffed pepper, and were dangerously sated.
Angie's main-course spatchcock poussin with salsa verde was a fine example of Delaunay cuisine: simple, unfussy, perfectly cooked – chargrilled and crispy outside, juicy inside, "sweet and tender and lovely to eat with your fingers". Accompanying wilted spinach (overpriced at £4.75) was unmushy and uncreamy, and you could taste the spinach leaves. My Holstein Schnitzel – how long is it since I tasted one of those? – was thoroughly flattened veal fried in a light coat of breadcrumbs, topped with a fried egg, capers and anchovy. It's not a complex dish to construct, but this was as wonderful as it must have been in the 1880s. As for the Chantenay carrots glazed with honey and ginger, they were a gift from the flavour angels operating at the peak of their talent.
Puddings weren't entirely successful. The charmingly named Scheiterhaufen – glossed by Daniel, our charming Colombian waiter, as "a pyre for burning witches" – was a bread and butter pudding with calvados; it was OK, but involved no more than pastry, cream, caster sugar and calvados cream. A Coupé Lucian, on the menu as a memorial to Lucian Freud, The Wolseley's biggest fan (he ate there every night), was a threesome of hazelnut, almond and pistachio ice-cream on a Freudian couch with whipped cream and butterscotch sauce. It was sweet enough to rot the teeth in your head, but we ate it all with relish.
The Delaunay instantly zooms to the top of my list of Restaurants to Take Special Friends For a Big Treat. It's lovely just to hang out there. The waiting staff are friendly and attentive. The prices aren't astronomical. You can't help feel it's your kinda place. It offers very up-market comfort food rather than chef-tastic brilliance, and that's fine with me. I'll be returning again and again (but next time, maybe I won't start with a hot dog).
The Delaunay, 55 Aldwych, London WC2 (020-7499 8558)
About £140 for two, with wine
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"
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