The Grill, Brown's Hotel, Albemarle Street, London
Saturday 08 March 2008
Brown's is a venerable old warhorse of the London hotel trade. It's the capital's oldest operating five-star hotel, opened in 1837 (the year Victoria ascended the throne) by the enterprising James Brown, who was once Lord Byron's valet, and has been stuck for eons with slightly moth-eaten labels of "refinement" and "gentility", as if its natural clientele were maiden aunts and decrepit urban relics of landed gentry. After Rocco Forte took it over in 2003, it was given a £18m spring-clean by his sister, Olga Polizzi. Now they've given the Grill a hose-down, by calling in Mark Hix as director of food, along with Lee Streeton (who worked for him at Daphne's) as executive chef.
This leaves me in a dilemma, since Mr Hix is not just an old friend of the Independent, but supplies it with weekly recipes in this magazine. Can one be coldly objective about the new-look Grill and risk upsetting the highly strung forager-in-chief? I decided to risk it, and went along to lunch.
Stepping through the doors pitches you back to the days when hotel restaurants were places of alarm and intimidation: fusty catacombs with napery shrouds and harried waiters. The feeling wears off, though, when you see that it's very coolly designed: wood panelling, wood pillars, snow-white tablecloths, green chairs and vases of what look to be silk flowers but are strange, waxy tulips. The only mistake is the addition of some truly horrible arty photographs by one Hubertus von Hohenlohe – kitschy fashion pictures of shopping malls and expensive travels, like advertisements for the Martini Generation, they fatally disturb the classy green-white décor. But the French waiters were attentive, the home-made bread delicious (the salt flakes on the roundel of butter were a nice touch) and the menu a delight.
One can play a game here, spotting the signature dishes of the new director of food. Roasted scallops with hedgerow garlic, that's terribly Hix, the West Country aficionado of rustic sourcing. So is the Romney Marsh beetroot salad with Golden Cross goat's cheese, the rabbit braised in cider with garlic and the roasted Devon Red free-range chicken. For nostalgists, there are vestigial traces of the old Trust House Forte style in the battered haddock with mushy peas, and the "Olde English Sausage". The Grill section offers five variants of steak, lamb cutlets, liver and bacon – it's a restaurant that's almost belligerently hearty, and I found it irresistible.
My monkfish cheeks with caper mayonnaise were a revelation, four gorgeous brown lumps of battered monkfish, to be spritzed with lemon and eaten greedily. Who knew fish cheeks could be so substantial? And though I find capers excessively pungent as garnishes, these cut the mayo to perfection. Beside me, Madeleine was fainting with rapture over the Cornish fish soup, and I soon joined her: its depth of flavour was astonishing, its seasoning faultless, its touch of dill inspired, its slightly grainy texture obscurely sexy. Whatever's in the fish stock, I wish I could take it home. These were two first courses of simple ingredients, cooked to a condition I can only describe as perfection.
For the main course, I chose a wild fallow chop with braised red cabbage and prunes, because I'd never eaten fallow deer before. Expecting a single chop, I was amazed by the profusion of meat that appeared before me – three huge tranches of what resembled lamb steaks, roasted medium rare, the flesh a beautiful pink. Its taste was a puzzle – it lacked the pungent, velvet intensity of venison, or the fibrous smoulder of beef – but was given some character by prune-infused cabbage and some delicious bubble and squeak. Madeleine's fillet of cod with seashore vegetables and cockles drew fresh raptures. "The fish is delicious, and I've never tasted vegetables so crunchy and punchy and delicately flavoured at the same time," she said. "It's a lesson in how to make cod interesting."
Struggling to finish a fumingly cedarwood-y bottle of Cahors, we marvelled at the size of the helpings, each one enough for two or three lunchers, and agreed we couldn't possible handle a pudding. Unsleeping devotion to duty, however, made us share an apple crumble with custard, which resembled an ignorant catering slab from Desserts-U-Like, but tasted absolutely heavenly, the crumble as fine as sand. The custard, with its tiny kiss of vanilla, came in a silver boat – and when we'd emptied it, they brought another. It's that kind of place.
This was the tastiest, most enjoyable and by some way largest lunch I've eaten in months. The Grill may not win Michelin stars for Ferran Adria-style imagination or ambitiousness, but its commitment to British food, lovingly cooked to bring out its finest qualities, makes it an instant favourite. I'll go back as soon as possible.
The Grill Brown’s Hotel, 33 Albemarle Street, London W1 (020-7493 6020)
Around £130 for two with wine
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