Turbot charged Hawksmoor turns attention to the fruits of the seas

Julian Harris
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5a Air Street, London, W1J 0AD Tel: 020 7406 3980
FOOD ****

Cost for two people: £140

PROPPING UP a cocktail bar amidst the art deco surroundings of Hawksmoor’s Air Street branch, my mind mused over the agonising misfortune of having been born into the wrong era. As I sipped an unpretentiously satisfying whisky mac, the scene would have been so much more apt had I been clad in a loose fitting three-piece suit while perusing a newspaper from, say, November 1928, and puffing indifferently on a small cigar.

Instead, alas, I was sat in our sterile 21st-century post-smoking-ban air, clad like a scruffy hack and impatiently hitting refresh on Twitter on my iPhone. Down at street level, brightly dressed bimbo tourists aimlessly peered into the Regent Street shop windows.

The timing of my birth can’t be blamed on Hawksmoor’s owners, however, and their new venture is a welcome retreat from the modern world – whether or not you’re pathetic and odd enough to hark after a PG Wodehouse-esque golden era.

And the bold, 1920s-style lounge-like décor offers a fitting context for Hawksmoor’s trademark offerings. As with their other three London joints, the new restaurant aims for luxury without the frills. Gastronomic attainment is sought along simple, straightforward lines, ignoring any need for complex culinary arrangements.

The famous London steakhouse has used its latest branch to trial a move towards seafood. “We decided to apply everything we’ve learnt about beef [pretty much: buy the best meat possible and don’t mess it up] to the fruits of the sea,” the menu explains.

To this end they have teamed up with Mitch Tonks, proprietor of the increasingly famous Seahorse restaurant in Dartmouth. The superbly named Tonks has facilitated an arrangement between Hawksmoor and a fisherman called Nigel, who sends them fresh produce from the south coast every morning. How quaint.

“No middlemen. No warehouses,” they boast. “As with our beef, the seafood we buy isn’t cheap – the best ingredients rarely are – but we think it’s worth it.”

As my guest and I delved into starters of half a dozen oysters alongside some scallops gently roasted in white port and garlic, it was difficult to dispute the menu’s claims. The oysters rivalled the best I have previously enjoyed – a title hitherto held by some I bought several years ago at Rick Stein’s seafood restaurant in Padstow.

As with Stein’s offering back then, Hawksmoor’s oysters are available with a side container of juicy, sticky coarse cocktail sausages; a quirky yet brilliant combination that I highly recommend. Down an oyster, bite into a sausage, wash down with a swig of Languedocian white. Lovely jubbly.

Despite having the taste of sea on our tongues, we thought a visit to Hawksmoor would be incomplete without at least one steak – and thus shared a 300 gramme fillet for part of the main course. Slightly charred on the outside, red in the middle, it was – as one would hope from the self-proclaimed steak specialists – near perfect.

I could have picked the jug of accompanying stilton hollandaise sauce and gulped it down, but quickly remembered to retain a semblance of etiquette. My guest, meanwhile, raved about the deep, rich bone marrow gravy which left no hint of cloy that one often gets from such concoctions.

Meat lovers can, therefore, head to Hawksmoor’s seafood restaurant without fear of being forced away from their favoured land food.

But whichever you prefer, the outcome is pretty much the same. The bream I ordered offered hugely satisfying thick chunks of moist and tender flesh, but also revealed the potential downside to Hawksmoor’s cooking. The fish is advertised as being cooked with garlic, rosemary and chilli, yet despite chunks of the former two lying on top of the fish, barely any of the three were detectable on one’s taste buds.

In these supposed times of austerity, some may wish a meal of this price to provide clever and exceptional combinations of flavours. Hawksmoor, however, rarely provokes a reaction of “wow, what’s that?” This is more comfort food than haute cuisine. The so called Jansson’s temptation – a side dish of potato, anchovy and parmesan – is essentially a nice, heartwarming bit of mashed spuds and cheese. The swish-sounding dessert of champagne jelly with grapefruit, orange and mandarin in fact appears and tastes a bit like a fun public school dining hall experiment.

Is this a bad thing? It depends on your outlook. Personally I enjoy the mind-opening experience of trying posh, adventurous food, but when it comes to the crunch I’m most happy with a glass of decent booze and a chunk of excellently cooked dead animal. Hawksmoor excels at the basics, a point hammered home by the fact that our meal included a side of spinach so brilliant that we are still talking about it a week after the meal. There is no denying that Hawksmoor’s mantra – “buy the best meat possible and don’t mess it up” – has successfully been transferred to the world of seafood. Bad news for fish, great news for protein-loving Londoners.