The Goring, London SW1

Steeped in tradition and history, The Goring lives up to its fine reputation with excellent British roasts shot through with a subtly playful streak of modernity
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When the quails'-egg salad arrives without quails' eggs, I wonder for a moment if this might be just another quaint British eccentricity, like the rabbit-less Welsh rabbit and the amphibian-deficient toad-in-the-hole. After all, The Goring is both British and eccentric - witness the life-size models of sheep grazing in front of the fireplace in the bar, the homely smell of hot toast in the air, and underlings who welcome you as if to their own hotel.

When the quails'-egg salad arrives without quails' eggs, I wonder for a moment if this might be just another quaint British eccentricity, like the rabbit-less Welsh rabbit and the amphibian-deficient toad-in-the-hole. After all, The Goring is both British and eccentric - witness the life-size models of sheep grazing in front of the fireplace in the bar, the homely smell of hot toast in the air, and underlings who welcome you as if to their own hotel.

But no. A salad of Jerusalem artichokes, quails' eggs and bacon with mustard dressing, should, by its very definition, feature eggs of the quail persuasion. Mentioning the matter inflicts real pain on maître d' Andrew Baker. Bravely, he assumes the expression of one able to rise above an unbearable tragedy, delivers a bon mot about the chef's eyesight, and whisks away the eggless platter.

The Goring prides itself on being a very personal and tightly knit operation. Sure enough, The Case of The Missing Quails' Eggs sweeps through the hotel, and within five minutes, Jeremy Goring, chief executive (and the fourth generation of Goring man to front the hotel) has come to empathise and sympathise. Soon I have a fresh new salad before me with eggs in attendance. It is good too: a light assembly of well-dressed leaves, the crunch of artichoke and sweet smokiness of bacon combining well with the pleasant neutrality of the eggs.

In typical Goring style, triumph has been snatched from the jaws of disaster like, well, eggs from a nest. Also typical is the plain-but-good presentation of a Norfolk-ham-knuckle terrine. There is no hotelly plating, no dots and dashes of whims and whams, just a whack of soft, giving, lightly jellied pork terrine served with crustless toast and an extremely good house-made piccalilli. A pint of real ale wouldn't go astray, but I make do instead with a soft, earthy, 2003 Duck Pond Oregon Pinot Noir (£27) from the vast 32-page, mostly French wine list.

It's a very British hotel dining room; slightly faded but still dignified, like a well-bred aunt. There are blingy chandeliers, sombre oil paintings, heavy drapes, thickly patterned carpet and single white candles on vast, white-clothed tables. If you have pearls, I suggest you wear them. Velvet alice bands seem obligatory. Gloves would not be out of place.

The hotel has just completed its annual Great British Food Festival, which is somewhat tautological, as every day is a British food festival at The Goring. Dishes such as glazed Scottish lobster omelette, Dover sole, calves liver with Suffolk bacon, and steak and kidney pie are as regular visitors to the dining room as the Queen Mother used to be.

The roast meats trolley may now be an endangered species elsewhere, but at The Goring it is a gleaming gastronomic grand prix. A very fine rib of Scotch roast beef, rosy scarlet in the middle and crusty at the edges, is sliced with care and skill at the table by a slip of a gel. Perfect Yorkshire puddings, like miniature golden chefs hats, appear from under silver cloches, while dishes of roasted potatoes, shredded cabbage, parsnip purée and a silky, flavour-packed gravy complete what is the best plate of roast beef I have eaten in London.

There's no hanky-panky with the braised devilled lamb's kidneys either, lightly cooked and sauced in a dark pool of gravy with cubes of lush black and white pudding. Its the sort of gooey mess only a kidney lover could love, full of deep, dank, lingering flavours.

The kitchen runs a fine line between traditional and modern, but nothing that would scare the horses. At the next table, Michael Portillo is rather taken with his "haggis, neeps and tatties" when it arrives in whimsical form as three perfect quenelles meeting in the middle of the plate. But you don't want anyone mucking around with pudding, and the baked custard tart is exactly what you would want. Very good pastry, a generous amount of pale custard with a hint of a wobble and a rich mouth-filling taste. The creamy nutmeg ice-cream manages to both update and complete the palate's nostalgia trip.

In August this year, the dining room will undergo its first renovations in an age. I hope they go for British and wood, rather than French and fabric. I also hope they continue to update and upgrade the idea of British dining, by putting Maldon sea salt on the tables instead of salt shakers, investigating more rare breeds and sending any sniffy French waiters back to their homeland.

Congratulations goes to The Goring for winning British Restaurant of the Year in the prestigious Tio Pepe ITV London Restaurant Awards (of which I am a judge) last Monday. Chef Derek Quelch is as important to the cause of British dining as Fergus Henderson, Gary Rhodes, Paul Heathcote and the Bluebird Dining Room's Mark Broadbent. Not just because he is cooking British food, but because he is doing it bloody well, with a sure and sensitive hand. In fact, The Goring is in imminent danger of becoming highly fashionable, a hurdle that I am sure it will surmount as effortlessly as it has every other threat that has faced it since the first Mr Goring opened the hotel in 1910.

16 The Goring, Beeston Place, London SW1, tel: 020 7396 9000. Breakfast and dinner daily, lunch Sun-Fri. £80 for a three-course dinner for two, not including wine and service

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

Second helpings: More roast beef trolleys

Simpson's-in-the-Strand 100 Strand, London WC2, tel: 020 7836 9112 Food revolution? What food revolution? Things have changed little since this bastion of British cooking opened in 1828. Here roast beef reigns supreme, carved from a silver-topped trolley. True enthusiasts can sign up for a carving course - an hour's instruction under Simpson's head chef, a souvenir carving set, and lunch in the Grand Divan for £95. The next dates are May 15, June 12 and July 10.

Leodis Victoria Mill, Sovereign Street, Leeds, tel: 0113 242 1010 If you don't know what you feel like eating, then just turn up at this buzzy waterside brasserie and you'll find everything from sushi and Caesar salad to steak and kidney pie and fish and chips, as well as tapas and gourmet sandwiches in the lunch bar. If you feel specifically like roast beef, however, then you must come at lunchtime, as the trolley doesn't do nights.

Le Talbooth Gun Hill, Dedham, Essex, tel: 01206 323 150 For more than 50 years, the Milsom family has run this delightful timbered restaurant on the banks of the River Stour in Constable country. The kitchen handles classics such as whole grilled Dover sole, roast chateaubriand and rack of venison with ease but, for many, the real drawcard is the slow rumble of the lunchtime roast meats trolley.

E-mail Terry Durack about where you've eaten lately at t.durack@independent.co.uk

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