When I booked my late afternoon table at Bentley’s I had grand visions of a seafood lunch under the sun that would momentarily transport me to holiday meals of years past. So it seemed only fitting, given the circumstances of the past year, that we walked out of Piccadilly Circus station to a downpour. Not just your typical grey, English, drizzling rain, but a biblical, heavens-have-opened weather event that had us arriving at the restaurant thoroughly sodden.
It takes a special place to make you forget an arrival like that, but over the next three hours, even as the rain only got heavier, cars tooted as part of the protest going past and helicopters buzzed overhead, I could have sworn I felt whisked away from reality.
I must admit, the traditional silver-platter, well-coiffed waiters and white tablecloth-style establishment isn’t usually my go-to. I tend to prefer the informality and easy-going nature of smaller, more local-feeling restaurants. But Bentley’s, with all its gilded edges and sirs and madams, may just have convinced me there is joy to be found in grandeur.
This could be to do with chef patron Richard Corrigan’s seemingly infectious love for food and an inherently special something that seems to soften the edges of this otherwise well-oiled restaurant. Having won two Michelin stars over his career, Corrigan bought Bentley’s in 2005 and refurbished it in a way that paid homage to its lengthy history yet brought it up to standard with the rest of the capital’s thriving restaurant scene. Restoring an icon is no easy feat, but Corrigan did so with care, and the fact that Bentley’s is still such a stalwart of the London dining scene is a testament to its timelessness.
The same thing that had us waiting a little longer than usual to be seated, was the same thing that kept us happily settled in our seats for over the average two-hour reservation period. No one at Bentley’s seems to be in a rush – and not in a lazy, frustrating way – but more in a holiday-mode style. Having polished off our dessert wines at the completion of our meal, there was no hurried placing of the bill, no pointed clearing of plates, rather, there was the jovial waiter asking if we wanted to try their infamous espresso martini: “You might just feel your seat rising to heaven”. He wasn’t necessarily wrong – although that could have been partly the result of the double dose of caffeine and alcohol.
But I’m getting ahead of myself – after we had been shown our table, we quickly ordered half a dozen Whitstable oysters and accompanying glasses of champagne – if you’re going to go old school, you may as well do it properly, right? Classically dressed with shallot vinegar and a muslin-wrapped lemon, they were set atop a bed of seaweed – a rare sight in the land-locked streets of central London. The restaurant isn’t called Bentley’s Oyster Bar for nothing, and the menu reflects this. A hefty selection of shellfish, molluscs and oysters range from carabineros (red prawns) and langoustines sold by the piece, to the fully-fledged seafood platter that reads like a species-list for the contents of the Atlantic Ocean.
Opting for the slightly more compact English shellfish cocktail, we were presented with an elevated take on the famed prawn cocktail – think Atlantic prawns, brown shrimp, white crab meat and lobster, all protected by a watchful, claw-adorned langoustine head. A joyous celebration of local seafood, it felt supremely fitting for the historical surroundings. The lobster bisque, meanwhile, was topped with tarragon and chantilly cream and had my soup-avoidant dining companion sighing at his first mouthful. Superbly infused with the richness of the lobster, the chantilly cream adds a depth of flavour that should, in practice, be too much, but somehow manages to make this French dish sing.
When it came to the main dishes, deciding what to order felt almost impossible. There’s the classic fish pie, filled with a mustardy concoction of prawns, salmon and haddock topped with delicately piped potato. The fish and chips are a classic, encased in a featherlight, crisp batter that satisfyingly crunches with each mouthful. The Cornish seafood soup is chock-a-block with aquatic delights, in an unctuous broth topped with rouille and aioli. I couldn’t look past the Goan spiced monkfish and prawn curry, hoping it would rival the Rick Stein iteration that I still have dreams about. Less a curry and more a deeply spiced sauce with a meaty fillet of monkfish and a lone prawn set atop, it didn’t quite live up to the meaI I had mentally paired it up against.
The fish Kiev, however, on the special’s menu for that day, was a testament to the kitchen’s inherent knowledge of the versatility of fish. Treated almost exactly like the chicken iteration of the famous dish, this was a flaky fillet packed to the rafters with a herby, garlicky sauce then rolled in breadcrumbs and fried until golden. Served with a crisp, spring-inspired courgette salad, it was a masterclass in elevating the simplicity of fish, without overpowering its delicacy. The seaweed butter potatoes, meanwhile, took the humble carbohydrate to new heights. Adding just a thimble-sized dose of sea salt and a hit of umami, they were soft-boiled, buttery and the perfect accompaniment to the seafood-heavy meal.
Bentley’s knows what it’s doing and it does it right. The food was largely an overwhelming hit, and the environment speaks to a certain sense of understanding of what people expect when they dine here. Service is friendly, formal when necessary, but familiar to the clientele who welcome it. It is the kind of place where I could imagine myself sliding onto a bar stool when I felt like a luxurious interlude of champagne and oysters, and then accidentally trotting out three hours later, well-fed and with new lifelong friends in hand. Just don’t forget to finish with an espresso martini.
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