Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Hawksmoor, Redux (Air Street)

A few weeks ago I wrote here about the Royal Standard of England, pretty much my idea of a perfect pub. Well, I think that Hawksmoor may well be pretty much my perfect restaurant. It's not just the food and drink that makes it so brilliant (fabulous rare breed beef British seafood, rib-sticking puddings, great cocktails), but the whole experience of dining there that makes a visit seem like a real treat. A mixture of  'Britishness', and a sense of humour that makes it feel like more than just somewhere to refuel.  I don't normally write about restaurants twice on the blog, but, with the exceptional Hawksmoor I feel it's worth making an exception.

Hawksmoor Air Street is the fourth opening in their 'mini-chain'.  The idea of expansion, even of a successful formula like Hawksmoor,  may, understandably,  worry some. How can you maintain such high standards without diluting the essence of what made you so great in the first place? It's a difficult line to tread, but judging from our latest visit one they're still managing admirably.

One thing that helps keep a unique identity is making each restaurant subtly different. Guildhall has breakfast featuring trotter baked  beans and HK sausage and egg muffins, and a beef tasting menu that the Ewing seriously considered for our Wedding feast (while I always believed that I nobody could love a rare steak quite as much as me, seeing the Ewing devour the rib eye at Hawksmoor Guildhall last year proved me wrong); Seven Dials and Spitalfields offer celebrated roast dinners, while the latter  also has a refurbished bar menu boasting delights such as oxtail poutine and short rib nuggets (delights I still haven't sampled yet, but are very high on the rapidly growing 'things to do' list).

Their new Air street incarnation - a large and airy room with great art deco stained glass windows overlooking Regent Street - has added a fishy twist to the mix, with advice on matters piscine coming from Mitch Tonks, owner and chef at the seahorse, Dartmouth. The Ewing and I were lucky enough to bag a couple of seats to their wildly popular soft launch. and we were looking forward to our lunch with high hopes and empty bellies.

Sitting in a prime spot facing the bar, it would have been rude not to start with a cocktail. I chose the Dandy, a dangerous sounding blend of cognac, maraschino, sugar, Bénédictine and champagne. My love of champagne, and champagne-based cocktails has been well documented, and I very much enjoyed this, although I may have preferred it slightly drier. The Ewing went straight in at the deep end with a full fat Old Fashioned on the rocks; made with a sinfully smooth butter infused bourbon.

I started with the shrimps on toast, the generous heap of seafood shot through with the spicy tingle of mace. Tiny pink shrimp are one of my very favourite things but I was a little worried the bread might dominate the sweet crustacea. In the end I craved even more carbs, to ensure I had scooped every last scrap of the buttery juices up.

The Ewing, predictably, sized up the most expensive started on the menu; scallops with white port and garlic. And what fine molluscs they were; bathed in garlicky butter, dusty with crunchy breadcrumbs and cooked just so. I was very pleased to see them arrive with the, much maligned but utterly delicious, corals still intact, too.

The chargrilled turbot, a 200g Hawksmoor cut. Quite the beauty, seasoned with little more than salt and pepper and garnished with a sprinkle of parsley, olive oil and a wedge of lemon. I have a great affection for turbot - my mum would very occasionally cook for me when I went round to visit - but both availability and cost make it a rare treat. This had been perfectly cooked, with the robust, yet tender, flesh holding up nicely to the smokiness of the chargrill.
 
And on to the main event; 900g of T-bone steak, cooked rare. I don't think there's any thing more disappointing, from a food perspective, than a badly cooked steak. I'm not fussed if other people want to incinerate their meat to a crisp, or like it still running around the plate, but, if I'm going to eat a steak, I want it to be the finest quality and cooked perfectly.
 
I appreciate it's a very difficult thing, and many have failed (including Hawksmoor on one occasion). Sometimes it's just a case of being on the grill a few seconds to long (or two short), other times your heart sinks as what is supposed to be a treat turns into a trauma. While this may sound overly dramatic, any steak lover will know the disappointment of cutting into a, much anticipated, slab of protein to find it's not how exactly you want it to be.
 
Luckily for me this beauty didn't let me down. I already knew the meat at Hawksmoor was mighty fine, but this steak was damn near perfect. Charred on the outside, edged with a generous frill of yellow, wobbly fat, and properly seasoned. It had also been well rested, so, although nicely rare, the bloody juices stayed in the meat instead of flooding the whole plate as you cut into a slice. Extra important if you want to avoid soggy chips.
 
Another reason to love this place is that, should you so desire, gnawing on a great shaft of bone after you've finished your steak - complete with sticky fingers and grease dribbling down your chin - brings smiles rather than raised eyebrows. (Not that I would ever be so uncouth....) And a special mention for the perfect Bearnaise sauce, as equally wonderful as their Stilton hollandaise.

I had to have some of their triple cooked chips, which were wow, as always. These are 'proper' chips, crisp outside, fluffy within, perfect for dipping in Bearnaise or bone marrow gravy, and they even make a pretty decent ketchup to accompany them, too.

We also had the braised fennel and trotter, and spinach with garlic and lemon from the 'fish sides' menu. The spinach was perfect; probably my favourite veg to pair with a steak. Usually you find it buttered or creamed, which is lovely, but often too much if you also have a rich sauce to go with your meat. This was perfect; zingy, fresh and iron rich. The fennel was, in a word, unctuous. The strands of trotter meat and porky juices complementing the delicate sweet aniseed of the fennel. I've been dreaming of a pie filled with this awesome mixture.
 
And on to pudding. Even after consuming such vast amouts of protein as we had you would have to be pretty joyless not to be tempted by delights such as sticky toffee sundae, appple and plum pie and  peanut butter shortbread with salted caramel ice cream. We plumped for the Jaffa Cake, a pimped up riff riff on the biscuity classic.
 
The cut through. I have to confess that, at this point, it was all a little too much for me (the Ewing, of course, had no such problems). The thick dark chocolate shell and dense, bitter ganache overwhelming the delicate nutty sponge base a little. The mouthfuls with the marmalade centre, however, were devine; the zesty orange cutting through the richness of the chocolate perfectly.

The Ewing also wanted to try some Granny Smith sorbet. Very smooth and refreshing, but a little too sweet for my tastes (I love the wincing sourness and puckered expression that comes when biting into a really good, sharp apple). The Ewing found it 'very apply' and pretty near perfect.

We also decided to sample a libations from there after dinner cocktail menu, this time an Icarus to share. This was served warm and with a flourish from this beautiful silver flask, and contained a heady mixture of Appletons Extra, Pedro Ximénez, Cocchi Americano, grapefruit & coffee beans. A couple of these and I'm sure you would end up flying to close to the sun.

Although the Jaffa Cake had almost finished me off we couldn't visit without sampling some of their famed salted caramel Rolos. The  Ewing was very concerned when three chocolates arrived at our table; how to share between two? As our waiter pointed out it was the perfect chance to ask the question 'do you love anyone enough to share your last Rolo?' In the Ewing's case, the answer was a resounding no.
 
While this was certainly a meal for a special occasion (even with the very generous soft opening discount), I feel it remains worth every penny. If you're craving a beef fix then they also offer a great value express menu, reasonably priced bar food (unless you get a taste for the lobster rolls) and £5 a bottle corkage on Mondays if you want to bring your own wine.
 
So, Hawksmoor Air Street, another feather in the cap for the Meaty Empire. All the things I love about their other branches were here on our latest visit; a simple menu full of things I actually want to eat and drink; charming service which manages to be casual, yet attentive; a great atmosphere; and all served up in a beautiful and welcoming space. Eating at their restaurants just always seems to give me that little glow of satisfaction, and that's not just the heartburn talking....

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