Restaurants: Bang to rights
Tracey MacLeod tucks into beer, sausage 'n' mash at RK Stanleys
Saturday 14 February 1998
Recently, though, like London buses arriving three at a time, a cluster of fashionable restaurants has sprung up in the slightly run-down area around Broadcasting House, led by the chic new Villandry at the top of Great Portland Street. Later this month, further down the same street, Oliver Peyton opens Mash, a sister restaurant to his Mash and Air in Manchester. And since November, there has been R K Stanleys, tucked away down a sidestreet in spacious premises converted from a former nightclub.
R K Stanleys is the brainchild of Fred Taylor, whose Covent Garden restaurant Alfred was one of the first of the designer working-men's caffs, serving traditional British dishes in stylish surroundings. This time, Taylor has gone for a more focused concept, and the concept is sausages. Sausages and beer, to be precise - R K Stanleys also offers an adventurous range of specialist draught and bottled British beers, courtesy of its backer, an independent brewery that is planning, if the formula proves successful, to replicate it around the country.
I arrived for a weekday lunch without a booking, but with suitably sausage- friendly back-up in the form of my friend Peter Curran, a disc jockey at nearby GLR (the BBC radio station for London). An anonymous entrance opens into a clean-lined room which feels remarkably airy, despite the lack of natural light. The look is utilitarian-Festival-of-Britain meets Fifties diner, with red banquette seating, and a proper American sit-down bar, where lone lunchers can perch to grab a solitary sausage. Walls are a sludgy battleship grey, and a brutal cement fresco on the wall seems to be made up of swastikas, though they prove on closer inspection to be the intertwined initials of the fictitious proprietor R K Stanley.
Comfortable-looking booths line the walls, some of them big enough to accommodate parties of up to 10. But all of them were already occupied, so we settled for a small table near the door, which gave me a good view of some fashiony types in fleeces and designer trainers who had obviously strayed in from the nearby rag-trade district. They included one flamboyantly beautiful young male model, who, as Peter rather naughtily commented, looked like he would only put a sausage in his mouth if his career absolutely depended on it.
The menu is shortish, and dominated by The Magnificent Seven, seven sausage dishes of varying complexity and ambition (all sausages are made on the premises, and are reasonably priced at around pounds 7 a dish). At one end, there is the Simple Stanley, a pork sausage served with onion gravy, kale and mash. At the other, there are some distinctly weird combinations. Thai sausage with noodles and duck sausage with candied orange and spinach both sound like the doomed experiments of a supermarket chain's development department, and neither of us was remotely tempted to try them.
The non-sausage options are limited. Three slightly pricier daily specials feature such standards of the Modern Brit repertoire as seared cod with lentils and calves' liver with bacon, and starters include pumpkin soup, steamed mussels and wood pigeon salad. Given the heftiness of our imminent main courses, it would probably have been wise to skip the starters. But I was glad I didn't - my smoked haddock was among the best I've ever eaten. Lightly-poached hunks of firm fish - naturally coloured, rather than dyed to a Des O'Connor yellow - shimmered on a huge mound of mustard greens topped with a perfect poached egg, like a baby's skull as Peter said. His Dublin rock oysters, on the other hand, were disappointingly small and flavourless, and he was unimpressed by our waiter's justification that, at pounds 6 for half a dozen, they were the best native specimens the chef could find at an affordable price.
We were both knocked out, though, by our choice of beers (here our waiter really came through for us, confidently steering us towards the brews that would best suit the dishes we'd ordered). My Bombardier Premium Bitter was incredibly smooth, the beer equivalent of malt whisky, and Peter's Marstons Oyster Stout was light and toasted, with a shorter finish than the more familiar Irish stouts.
But what of the sausages, the fleshy foundation on which the nascent R K Stanleys empire is founded? Well, they were big - about 10 inches was Peter's estimate, though given the male propensity to exaggerate, I revised it downwards to nearer eight. And they were intensely meaty. Unlike shop-bought sausages, which explode moistly in the mouth, these were dense and slightly dry, like compacted mince as Peter accurately put it. My Bratwurst, a pork sausage flavoured with sage and nutmeg, came with a fragrant slab of tender bacon, sauerkraut, and some frankly unnecessary caramelised pears. Peter's bolder choice of game sausage flavoured with juniper, thyme and red wine was darker and more intense, with an autumnal accompaniment of red cabbage and sweet glazed parsnips. Both came with flavoured mash, his with mustard, and mine with champ - potato mashed with shallots and butter. It's a speciality of Peter's home town of Belfast, where, he claims, people eat it with everything - even, on occasion, with potato. Sampling my portion, he found it adequate, but not quite oniony or creamy enough to be truly authentic.
Overall, though, we agreed that R K Stanleys is trying very hard. The cooking is executed with the kind of flair and attention to detail that you don't expect in this price range (our bill was pounds 25 a head), and service was admirably prompt and efficient. It would be perfect for a winter supper or weekend family lunch (children can currently lunch for free on Saturdays), and judging by the number of besuited men around us, it is already starting to find a healthy lunchtime market for its sturdy masculine fare. The four young businessmen who were sitting next to us - they could have been estate agents, or BBC resource managers - were certainly enjoying their grub. Well, three of them were, anyway, big hearty chaps who reacted with boisterous enthusiasm when their huge sausages were laid before them. But the fourth, much smaller and quieter than the others, was obviously mortified to be presented with his choice, a small, bright-green sausage (it must have been the Glamorgan, a vegetarian option made with leeks and cheese). Shrinking in his seat, he barely said a word for the rest of the meal, and I was reminded of the legendary BBC executive whose favourite way of bringing meetings to a close was to say "It's dicks-on-the-table time, lads," even if a woman was present.
By the time we'd polished off a shared pudding - a slightly drab lavender- scented rice pudding with creme fraiche sorbet and a minty syrup - Peter and I were rendered totally impotent by beer'n'banger bloatage. He staggered off to breathe stout over a few unfortunate celebrities - the identity of his interviewees had slipped his mind by the end of our meal - and I cycled home so slowly that at one point I seemed to be going backwards. Before we parted, I asked Peter if he would ever come back to "do lunch" at R K Stanleys. "I would," he said, carefully, "if I was in the mood for a very specific dish that involved a large sausage"
RK Stanleys, 6 Little Portland Street, London W1 (0171-462 0099). Lunch noon-3.30pm, dinner 6pm-11.30pm, Mon-Sat. Closed Sundays. Disabled access. All cards except Diners Club.
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