It was opened two-and-a-half years ago by one Andreas Antona. As his name might suggest, Mr Antona is of Cypriot extraction. He was born in Sussex, trained in the large hotel kitchens of the Dorchester and the Ritz, and was drawn to the Midlands by his wife, who hails from Warwickshire. This hybrid of Greek, French and English influences shows vividly in Mr Antona's cooking. Simpson's is one of the few restaurants where you might find foie gras, black pudding and kleftico on the same menu. The fact that he trained in hotels shows in two ways: in the elaborate presentation of food on the plate, and in the baking. The bread rolls were excellent, particularly a dark caraway number.
Suitably enough, the staff are English, Greek and French. Our waiter was French, and not averse to a bit of a chat. "The problem with Greek food in Greece is that it has sheeps with everything," he offered. We decided that he meant chips. The problem with the Greek food Simpson's serves in Warwickshire is that it is too far away from London for me to eat there all the time. As a starter, fried slices of halloumi cheese were served with pert salad leaves and artistic little dabs of pesto set about the edge of the plate. The absolute star of the meal was the main course of kleftico, the lamb shoulder moist, firm and full of flavour, not, as one so often finds it, stringy and exhausted by stewing on hotplates. It was served with a potato cake that was perfect, the outside crisp, the inside melting and spudiferously good. Scattered about, again artistically, were vegetables, mainly perfectly cooked green beans.
More of the Greek food when we come to the puddings. Of the starters and main courses, most of the other dishes we sampled were French-style. A fish stew was dense and good. Pot roast chicken served with lentils and Lyons sausages was better: gutsy, well nigh perfect. The meat was exactly right: tender and full of true chicken flavour. The lentils were not a heavy stew, but a loose and light affair in a lightish liquor with nice sour chunks of Lyons sausage.
It interests me that the thing I liked the least, make that actively disliked, is, according to Mr Antona, his most popular dish. Described on the menu as "sea bass with king prawns and lobster minestrone", even the name makes me shudder. It is shades of panaches, delices and grand selections de this and de that, generally of seafood, invariably involving too much of everything except good sense. Sea bass is a noble fish. Here is it debased by dispatching it into a mismatched fray of ingredients. First, at the base of a deep plate, is some mash. This is covered over by a stock, or the lobster "minestrone". There are chunks of prawn. The char-grilled sea bass is sent wading in the centre of all this. Why char grill bass, then drown it? Why submerge mashed potatoes in lobster stock? Why scatter fried basil leaves over it? Why, why, why is this popular? I suspect it is ordered frequently because it sounds luxurious. I wonder, however, if this creation is ever ordered twice by the same person.
Puddings were fine. Not great. Fine. The crust of a lemon tart was not crisp, the filling a bit overcooked. Partnering it with lime sorbet might sound appealing, but lemons and limes only go well together in a fruit bowl. As flavourings, they cancel one another out. A chocolate cheese cake was unexceptional. Most interesting was a Greek offering called "kadafi". "Everyone pronounces it like the colonel," says Mr Antona. In fact, it is pronounced "kay-dee-feen". It tastes as exotic as it sounds. Finely shredded pastry, like shredded wheat, is served with a pink mix of fromage frais and boozy cherries on a dramatic dark plate, dusted with powdered sugar. This is showy food, to my mind more thrilling to the eye than mouth.
Pricing is straightforward. Two courses cost pounds 16.95, three pounds 19.95. There are eight choices for each course: quite a feat for a small restaurant. More impressive is the breadth of styles which Mr Antona confidently covers, the honest generosity of his portions and inclusion of vegetables within these courses rather than as expensive "extras".
Our French waiter served us quickly, graciously and cheerfully. On his recommendation, we ordered the "wine of the week", Domaine la Molle, a chardonnay, a Vin de Pays d'Oc, meaning it came from southern France. This was very good, if not pounds 15.95 good (more like pounds 7 to pounds 8 good in a restaurant, and pounds 2.50 to pounds 3 good in an off license). I prefer to think that the haste with which the waiter refilled our glass was a desire to serve, not make us drunk and sell more wine. The tipsy ladies I encountered in the loos seemed to have had the same sort of service. In any case, espressos were strong, good and neededReuse content