October is the month that most of us turn our central heating back on. I heard this on a news bulletin last week and thought: good on you for squeezing such a banal piece of information onto a national radio broadcast. So in the spirit of spuriously listing things that may or may not happen around this time of year, October is the month we start eating stodgy winter food. Fish is out. Game is in. White whine is banned. As a rule of thumb, if you can contemplate exercise within four hours of eating something, you shouldn’t eat it. Not now. Not in October.
So I went to the newly renovated Sauterelle (it’s french for grasshopper; the restaurant is named after the insect on the building’s weathervane, which represents wealth and prosperity) in Royal Exchange hoping for squash and swede and venison.
I’ve been a few times over the years, under both former head chef Robin Gill (now at SW4’s The Dairy) and the incumbent Piero Leone. I’ve always thought it was fine. Couldn’t tell you what I’ve eaten. Decent. Forgettable. It’s never struck me as anything more than a place you’d go for a nice working lunch, or a working dinner at a push. The revamp is aimed at expanding this to working breakfasts and after-work drinks. It’s all very worky. If you can spot someone who isn’t wearing a suit you should get a free drink.
The changes to the dining area are subtle – it feels softer, the lighting is better, the seating more comfortable. The space is still slightly awkward but you get a nice view down onto the atrium. “It’s exactly what you’d expect a restaurant in Royal Exchange to look like,” says El Pye.
And what you’d expect from the food is the kind of stuffy, faffy fare that’s sadly common around these parts. But you’d be wrong, because it’s relentlessly interesting, sometimes to a fault.
I had a fascinating autumn salad consisting of figs, candied walnuts, herb-rolled goat’s cheese and crisped lotus root. Very seasonal. Very good. Butternut squash with truffle arancini was outstanding, ribbons of squash cooked in citrus, a handful of berries thrown in for good measure. An equally tasty Spanish-style dish of lentils and mushroom with potato foam was both decadently rich and refreshingly light. It was served in a coffee cup.
“A cappuccino for your starter!” said the waiter. “Hahaha! No, don’t worry, it’s not really a cappuccino!”
The venison loin (because October) was a spectacle: two juicy cuts of meat rolled in crushed, freeze-dried raspberries, blobs of cherry and raspberry puree decorating the plate. It looked like a meat dessert. It tasted like a meat dessert. I’m not sure I’d order it again, but it looked marvelous and I’ll forgive a lot in the name of extravagance.
El Pye clearly didn’t get the October memo and ordered blackened cod, a gigantic, translucent fillet, beautifully cooked and nicely complimented by a pea and lemon sauce.
The waiter recommended two desserts: one a perfectly acceptable chocolate mont blanc with meringue, the other a cheesecake that definitely wasn’t a cheesecake. What arrived instead was a selection of the ingredients that make up a cheesecake, stuck to the plate with pistachio cream. It looked like a winning Chelsea Flower Show entry. The waiter listed each ingredient: boozy cherries, soft cream, blackberries, freeze-dried raspberries... He hovered by the table as I ate a spoonful.
“There’s one ingredient I didn’t tell you about!”
“Is it the popping candy?”
“Ha! Yes! Well done!” he said, his tone suggesting I’d identified some obscure ingredient rather than the source of the crackling in my mouth.
It was divine.
I’ve often complained about the dearth of interesting restaurants in the City, places that cater to more than a carnal desire for steak. This situation has improved of late and Sauterelle joins the likes of City Social on my list of places that would tempt me to stay in the Square Mile after working hours. It’s smart and confident, combining elaborate, involved cooking with a wicked sense of fun. Even if it sometimes misses the mark, at least it does so with aplomb. It's the perfect way to brighten up a rainy October evening. Now I'm off home to put the heating on.