I think this organ demonstrates my dedication to the pursuit of ludicrously enjoyable experiences. Fortunately, my erratic stagger through life has presented an obscene number of these and so I feel confident in my ability to handle extreme gratification. However, our Tuesday dinner at the new branch of Hawksmoor was so pleasurable that even my well-honed junketing abilities were only just up to the task of milking every joyous drop of fun from the visit.
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Hawksmoor’s other branches (in Spitalfields and Covent Garden) are not only London’s best steak restaurants but also my favourite establishments in Town. The former I’ve visited many more times than any other restaurant. In the new Guildhall branch the menu, cocktails and wine-list are turned up to eleven. How much more dissolute can you get? Finding out might be a challenge.
Whilst we may have got lost whilst trying to find it, we still think the location is well-chosen. Slap-bang in the pulsing heart of The City, opposite Guildhall, they should have a ready clientele of appreciative customers within breakfast or lunch-hunting range. Nice location for sure, but the venue itself is even better.
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The tasteful bar is large enough to accommodate plenty of foxed city-types with no danger of disturbing other drinkers should they collapse due to uninhibited expenditure of clients’ money. It is also impressively stocked with quality drink and manned by staff charged with the self-assurance of those who know how, when called upon, to create drinks of enabling heroism.
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The dining room is larger than at any other branch yet not echoingly devoid of character nor so busily fussy it will distract from the important business of eating and drinking. Even when full toward the end of the evening the room was not painfully loud and conversation remained easy. The wine storage room at one end is clearly large and full, but not a vulgar extravagance of showy pretension. I can feel ill at ease in large restaurants but here I felt relaxed knowing I would have serious fun.
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The quality of the venue is match by that of the staff. It is great when service is unobtrusive, relaxed and friendly; better still when everyone displays an intricate knowledge and passionate enthusiasm for the comestibles they serve. Such things enhance a dining experience, but what most impressed me was the universal desire amongst everyone I chatted with to try their very best to make their diners happy. This engaging professionalism is present in all branches of Hawksmoor and, whilst some staff had transferred from the other locations, even those who were working their first shift on the first night could not be further from the smug, aloof and condescending waiters commonly encountered in Parisian one-stars.
It gets better. There is a new cocktail list for this branch and, whilst the others have an embarrassment of riches, reading this one was informative, enlightening and hilarious. None of the hedonistic, outré or bonkers cocktail bars I’ve patronised mix nuclear banana daiquiris. Lots of giggles certainly, but that undersells the inventive composition and skilful assembly of the few we tried. My first drink, a fancy gin cocktail, was the greatest martini I have ever been served being both booze-tastic and wonderfully drinkable – it was actually nice, didn’t hurt and left me markedly improved.
When I glanced at the wine list the dedication to delivering the best booze possible was even more apparent. I loathe 200+ page lists that have massive verticals of some piss-boring Classed-growth Claret no doubt owned by the same Swiss insurance company as the tedious and pretentious three-star that you wish you’d given a miss. I am rabidly obsessed with wine and talk about it endlessly, but I don’t go to any restaurant just to spend half an hour ignoring my fellow diners because I am obliged to read how much money someone has frittered away on bottles unlikely to ever be ordered. Such lists impress only the hard of thinking and vanishingly rarely lead to the ideal choice to accompany a meal.
The chap in charge of wine at Hawksmoor Guildhall knows that it is not how big something is that matters, but what you do with it. The list has an impressive range yet remains brief enough to retain attention. Quality exists at all price-levels, they are food-friendly and some of the gems on offer are seriously titillating for even grand wizards of the wine illuminati. In my vastly opinionated opinion it is the perfect restaurant list with choices informed by uncommon knowledge, impressive dedication and excellent taste.
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Given the generally dim view held of rosé wine by those who care it was rather surprising to be offered a taste of one. Given my pathological revulsion of Spanish wine (except Sherry) I was unutterably gobsmacked when told it was a Gran Reserva Rioja rosé from 2000. Cripes, an 11 year old rosé, have you had many? No? Didn’t think so. Sure, it was a bit oak-themed but I was smitten by its infinitely unlikely fruit, infeasibly impressive depth of character and unbelievably complex array of flavours. Bollocks, there goes one of my favourite prejudices. Had the wine list been any less brilliant I’d have instantly secured a bottle from a different source to prove someone was trying to fool me.
Finally, there is the crowning glory of the food itself. Editor Daniel suggested the menu was a mix of the nursery and a rare-breeds farm. There is more than a ring of truth about that, but when the enthusiastic amount of food we ordered began to arrive it was the fulgurating quality that made the greatest impression.
The stars from menus at other branches were present. The Tamworth belly ribs had us groaning with the usual levels of lubricious satisfaction; they really are amazing. Daniel’s bone-in Sirloin steak was expertly cooked, precisely as ordered and of superlative quality. Our favourite side order, macaroni and cheese, remains far better than anyone with memories of primary school lunches is capable of imagining. It wouldn’t be Hawksmoor without these stars ready to sate your lusts.
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However, Huw and Will, Hawksmoor’s bosses, are not content to rest on their laurels and the new additions to the menu demonstrate their unswerving passion for top bunny food and sheer bloody-mindedness when it comes to honing recipes to ever higher standards. Our first new starter was veal tartare which got frighteningly close to perfection; if hygiene regulations allowed for serving raw meat closer to room temperature then it would have achieved that zenith. The seasonings were wonderfully balanced to enhance without obscuring the excellent raw veal flavours and we were very pleased it was not minced to homogeneous pap. I wish Daniel hadn’t stuffed his fat face with so much of it, I wanted more!
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Lobster cocktail may sound hackneyed, clichéd and trite[ref]When I first played with some experimental grammar-checking software in the mid-eighties I found it hilarious when the computer criticised my prose using this phrase. I forget my aim in doing so but I made incredible efforts writing GCSE English coursework to get this automated abuse as frequently as possible. The teacher commented that my use of English as an offensive weapon was so worrying he had to give me full marks: he couldn’t have made me more chuffed.[/ref]. Not here! Large chunks of barely cooked lobster were anointed anointed with an intense lobster bisque-flavoured Marie Rose sauce. I have a surprising amount of time for kitsch dishes of 1970s provincial hotel dining room and when, like this, they are made with more effort and ability than anyone in England at that time thought food worthy of then they are simply corking.
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I had a new main course: veal chop with fried oysters. Veal chops generally encountered in questionably authentic, spiv-infested Italian restaurants are commonly dry, flavourless and over-cooked to such an extent that eating cabbage would seem slightly less horrific than ordering one again. Mine was moist, pink in the middle and seriously scrummy. I’ve had fried oysters a few times, the best being at The Pearl Oyster Bar in New York. Yet even there my paranoia informed me they were simply a cunning method of selling inedible and potentially lethal oysters whilst limiting the number of diners who get luridly horrible food-poisoning. No such chicanery at Hawksmoor! Whilst the batter was quite crisp the blighters themselves were so lightly cooked using anything other than the best available would risk mass homicide and incalculably costly class-action suits. They re-defined the dish for me and I will find them hard to refuse on future visits.
You won’t regret ordering the two new side-dishes we tried. The onion rings were not the minced, reformed contrivances that stand out as being notably vile even in the frightful selection of awfulness Burger King peddle as undesirable replacements for food. The rings were cut from large onions of powerful character coated in crunchy batter not soggy with rancid grease. This is how they should be. The cauliflower cheese had a similarly distant relationship as the mac and cheese does with the emetic products institutional kitchens claim as these foods. It is clear they don’t hold back on dropping fun tokens when it comes to sourcing the cheese for the sauce.
It was a brilliant evening and anyone with a sophisticated understanding of what is really important in life will feel much the same after a visit. To get you seriously in trouble with the drearily tiresome fun police an extended evening meal including cocktails, wine and lashings of stunning food may result in your credit card smoking. Sod that, little will make you happier. We wanted to try the breakfast as well; sadly a combination of crippling hangovers and AM/PM confusion conspired to prevent this. Do try it; even if the portions are smaller the food is just as covetable and prices more modest (it opens at 7am). In England we have understatement, which I suppose is pretty good, so you’ll appreciate my restraint when I say you should be making every effort, up to and including selling an internal organ you haven’t abused too much, to go there and wallow in mind-bending joy. If you apply yourself by the end of the evening you’ll have no other desire but to find the most senior and easily embarrassed member of staff and give them a big hug whilst they are busier than at any previous juncture in their lives. I seem to remember him blushing a lot.
I’ve been made aware of some intelligence that may, hard as it is to believe, allow you have an even better time than me when you visit. Moreover, whilst pleasuring yourself immensely you can simultaneously support a noble, food-related cause. Good, eh? On Saturday 26th November Hawksmoor Guildhall will secure the talents of a selection of UK chefs who know how to make people drool and, along with Hawksmoor’s own talented team, they’ll prepare a special menu for 100 diners preceded by a Champagne reception and culminating in a charity auction to support Action Against Hunger.
At that restaurant with those chefs cooking I’d infiltrate Buckingham Palace and wave my rude bits at the Queen in order to attend. Sadly Hawksmoor don’t accept sexually assaulting a nonogenarian head of state as a valid payment method (well, not any more) and the caper counters are a bit tight at the moment so I cannot relish this particular experience. If you want to eat lewdly well (the organisers are pleased as chips about what’ll be prepared that night) whilst being quite nice to deserving types here is a link that will give you more information about the event. As you read that page and feel the draw of gratification I could point out, if I were a weaselling sponger of a fellow, that my birthday is just a few days before the event. Then again if you have battled through this review I suppose you’ve now read all of my jokes.
One last thing. I am sure they are too busy to read this far but if any of you bump into the restaurant boss men Huw and Will you don’t have to bother passing on my thanks. Rather tell them to relax and get some bloody sleep. Honestly, they take it far too seriously – I’ve never seen people looking as drained except when I lasted 11 nights with no sleep and, in order to convince me a trip to hospital was best, a doctor told me to look at myself in a mirror. You’ve done well, chaps, now take a break!
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Hawksmoor Guildhall, 10-12 Basinghall Street, London EC2V 5BQ. +44 (0)20 7397 8120