Three steps to heaven

Simon Hopkinson reveals three of his favourite restaurants, and the dishes that keep him coming back for more
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Assuming you remain intrigued as to the identity of the three favourite establishments I tantalisingly alluded to last week, I feel it would be helpful to first enlighten you as to the reasoning behind my choice. In essence, it comes down to three impressions: I feel safe, I shall do well here, they know.

Assuming you remain intrigued as to the identity of the three favourite establishments I tantalisingly alluded to last week, I feel it would be helpful to first enlighten you as to the reasoning behind my choice. In essence, it comes down to three impressions: I feel safe, I shall do well here, they know.

On the following pages I have reproduced some of the simple but perfect recipes that these establishments offer.

All three of these London restaurants inspire the sense of confidence and continuing service that I can perhaps best illustrate by relating a recent experience at one of my favourite establishments in Paris. Here, when one of the stalwart waiters put me firmly in my place, all I could do was beam with pleasure.

An exchange over lunch, chez Brasserie Lipp, Paris, last July (translated from the French, of course):

Me: "I have been eating here for many years, but I never knew you offered tête de veau as a plat du jour on Fridays."

Waiter: "Oh, yes. For 65 years now."

Me: "Well I never!"

Waiter: "Would you like some?"

Me: "But, of course!"

The Havelock Tavern

Even if the Havelock was in another part of London, I'd probably choose to eat there at least once a month. However, as it is a three-minute walk from my front door in West Kensington (all right, Shepherd's Bush/borders of Brook Green), I find that I may go there more often. And, incidentally, did you know that the street in which the Havelock is situated, one Masbro Road, once held the record of accommodating Britain's largest number of pubs (four) in respect of its length. There are now three. Exciting as it must once have been to have lived in a street listed amongst the pages of The Guinness Book of Records, most residents now regard this as plenty.

So, why, apart from the convenience, is The Havelock listed here? To put not too fine a point on it, I recently ate a lunch here that was as good as any I have eaten anywhere. Ever. And, considering that almost all other meals have been a mix of good, very good and the occasional astonishingly fine single dish over the last four and a half years (50-odd lunches since Peter Richnell and chef Johnny Houghton moved in and shook the place about a bit - but not much), to then provide me with three separate courses of such utter brilliance, from somewhere that I can almost see from my sitting-room window, is nothing short of miraculous.

It happened to be Johnny Houghton himself cooking lunch that particular day. But, you know - and this is intended as a compliment to him - it could just as easily have been his erstwhile original assistant chef, Jo Wilkinson (who has recently left to go and work for The River Café girls) who was cooking, so intelligently are ideas, economics and traditional cooking principles conveyed to all who toil within this bustling little kitchen.

Coincidentally, in common with St John (see over), The Havelock also chooses to bake its own bread, daily. Now then, how many London pubs do you know which do this? And very nice bread it is too - as, indeed, are all those who willingly slice it up, serve it, take orders, pull pints, pour wine and clear everything away when you have finished eating. And, what might it have been, that perfect lunch? Salad of cos lettuce, avocado, mozzarella, Parmesan (grated, not shaved), anchovy and garlic dressing; roast fillet of cod, chips and aioli; apple and treacle tart, vanilla ice cream.

You might think you have seen these sort of dishes everywhere, recently. But, then, everyone copies everyone at some time. Here, however, they taste as if each recipe had been devised only last week. I feel very safe. I always do well here. They know me - which, for heaven's sake, is actually what happens anywhere when you turn up often enough, especially when you live just around the corner ...

Havelock Tavern, 57 Masbro Road, London W14 (020-7603 5374)

Salad of cos lettuce, avocado, mozzarella, Parmesan, anchovy and garlic dressing

Serves 2

Although this recipe is clearly based upon Caesar salad, in this form it becomes a dish in its own right.

1 large cos lettuce, outer leaves removed, or two hearts; try only to use the pale green inner leaves, whatever route you choose

1 small Hass avocado, peeled and cut into large dice

half a buffalo mozzarella, cubed

For the dressing

1 egg yolk

a little freshly ground white pepper

2 small cloves garlic, peeled and crushed

6 anchovy fillets, finely chopped

scant tbsp red wine vinegar

juice of 1 small lemon

225ml olive oil

scant tbsp, or so, warm water, to loosen the mixture

2dsp grated Parmesan

Note: The best way to make the dressing is to use a small food processor. If made by hand, the result will taste the same but will not be as creamy.

Blend together the first six ingredients until well mixed. Slowly begin to add the oil in a thin stream until fully homogenised and then blend in the water and only one dessertspoon of the Parmesan. Put the cos, avocado and mozzarella into a roomy bowl and add only enough of the dressing to generously coat the ingredients, once tumbled together. Sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan and serve at once.

Le Suquet

Although it had never occurred to me before now, I am delighted to reveal to one and all that Pierre Martin and I opened our first restaurants in the very same year, 1975 (La Croisette, London, him; The Shed, Pembrokeshire, me - courtesy of the 1976 edition of The Good Food Guide). Although his was in a (then) quiet residential street on the borders of Chelsea and Fulham and mine was by the sea in one of the remotest parts of west Wales, we both also managed to serve fresh langoustines when the majority of the country was mindlessly munching its way through a cluster of greasy, bright orange, crunchy scampi nuggets. He went to Scotland and France for his, while mine came all the way from Flookburgh, Lancashire, by train.

It was to be Pierre Martin who revolutionised the way we buy, cook and serve fish in this culinarily challenged country of ours. And those who consequently benefited from his inspiration and fortitude should not forget such pioneers. The now hugely successful wholesale fishmongers Cutty Catering (possibly the biggest suppliers of fish to the largest number of restaurants in the land) would not, I feel sure, have achieved such an assured success without that initial foresight of Pierre Martin.

Having at one time been involved in several fish establishments across London (plus a couple in France) for several years, Martin is now very content indeed just with the singular Le Suquet. And, to his eternal credit, Francis Mornay - who has long been looked upon as numero uno here - has been at Le Suquet for 24 years (previously as commis to Martin when he was head barman at Le Fouquet's, Paris in the late Sixties) as has chef Philippe Moron. Both, as it were, having since become part of the mobilier.

I, myself, had been guilty of forgetting all about Le Suquet for far too many years (setting up a restaurant around the corner did not exactly help; although, in retrospect, this should have furthered neighbourly relations) but, having recently seen the error of my ways, have re-embraced all that attracted me to it the first time around: the butteriest and best moules mariniÿres, fish soup, immaculate grilled langoustines and lobsters, and oysters, of course. And, perhaps my favourites, either frog's legs or scallops Provençales, each without even the slightest doubt, simply cooked in frothed butter, garlic and parsley. I feel safe. I shall do well here. They know.

Le Suquet, 104 Draycott Avenue, London SW3 (020-7581 1785)

Coquilles Saint Jacques Provençales

Serves 2

1dsp olive oil

5 large scallops, sliced horizontally in two

salt and pepper

50g butter

2 large cloves garlic, chopped

1tbsp chopped parsley

lemon

Heat the olive oil in a heavy frying pan until hazy. Season the scallops and fry on both sides until slightly crusted and golden. Remove to two hot plates and add the butter to the hot pan. Allow to froth and then add garlic. Cook gently until the odour becomes unbearably good, but before the garlic begins to brown. Throw in the parsley, swirl it around a bit and spoon over the scallops. Serve with lemon wedges to squeeze over.

St John

Without beating about the bush or in any way wishing to sound patronising, it is particularly the word "admirable" (which, last week, I employed generally as a description for all three establishments listed here today, and stick with) that comes to mind whenever I think of the restaurant and bar called St John.

Maybe it also helps that its conceiver, chef and architect manqué Fergus Henderson - a thoroughly admirable human being, as well as being quietly determined, deeply focused and delightfully quirky - has set such an indelible seal upon the heart of this unique place.

Simply because St John's repertoire regularly offers such long-discarded native delights as ways with bone marrow, tripe, stuffed spleen, chitterlings, pig's trotters, tails and cheeks, Henderson has, to his constant chagrin, now been labelled as a "bits" cook. This could not be farther from the truth. Yes, of course, along with most other intelligent-minded cooks who emerged from a generation brought up by interested families, who were encouraged to enjoy all pleasures of the table (such explanation would not be necessary if I were, for instance, Spanish), he was already familiar with such things, but it was only because he happened to like their taste!

How about a perfect boiled crab with mayonnaise, sardines on toast, or lamb and barley broth? A simple, whole lemon sole, rabbit and fennel, or smoked eel, bacon and mash - the last is one of the most satisfying plates of food that I have ever eaten.

As for the two small pots which contained the cockles and pickled onions that I ate in the St John bar and bakery a few weeks ago, the very fact that I made them last almost an hour is surely testament to their savoury goodness. So, yes, once again, I feel safe. I shall do well here. They know.

St John, 26 St John Street, London EC1 (020-7251 0848)

Cockles and pickled shallots

Serves 2

The recipe for the pickled shallots is taken from Fergus Henderson's unique cookery book Nose to Tail Eating (Macmillan, £20). As far as I could tell, the cockles here were simply steamed in their own juices.

6 large handfuls of fresh cockles, well rinsed

For the pickled shallots

sea salt

malt vinegar

white wine vinegar

8 cloves

10 allspice berries

2 cinnamon sticks, whole

8 white peppercorns

10 black peppercorns

4 bay leaves

12 coriander seeds

4 small, hot red chilli peppers

1kg small shallots, peeled

 

Cover the shallots with brine (made with 500g salt to 1.5 litres water) and leave to soak in a plastic, glass or china container for a week in the fridge.

Now you know how much liquid it takes to cover your shallots, heat the same amount of a half-and-half mixture of malt vinegar and white wine vinegar in a stainless steel saucepan with the collection of spices. While this comes up to a simmer, rinse the shallots thoroughly and place into the simmering spiced vinegar for 5 minutes, then remove from the heat and bottle in clean, sterilised sealable jars and keep for a month somewhere cool. They are now ready to use. The left-over spiced vinegar is very good for dipping cooked whelks in, for instance.

To cook the cockles, put a splash of water in a large pan that also possesses a tight-fitting lid. Put the pan on a high heat and, once it begins to boil, tip in the cockles. Cover and leave for 4-5 minutes. Remove lid, shake those that are on top to the bottom, replace lid and cook for a further 3-4 minutes or so.

Once you are happy that as many cockles as you can see have fully opened up(do be sure not to over-cook them), drain into a colander that has been suspended over another pan or large bowl. Once they are cool enough to handle, shell the cockles and place the meat in a small bowl. Once it is cold, strain the resultant liquor through a muslin-lined sieve over the shelled cockles. Serve the cockles and shallots as shown in the picture.

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