The City of London is a wonderful place. For those of you not from London, let me explain that when I say The City, I don’t mean the whole of London, the West End, Chelsea, Islington, Greenwich, Hammersmith and the like. No, that’s Greater London. The City of London, on the other hand, refers to the Square Mile, or more specifically a tiny area in the very centre of the city, bounded by Westminster at its western edge, followed by Camden, Islington, Hackney and finally Tower Hamlets at its eastern edge, just short of the Tower of London. It is the oldest part of the city and was originally surrounded by the Roman city wall (parts of which can still be seen), although the current borders were fixed in Mediaeval times and have remained unchanged ever since. It is traditionally the financial powerhouse of London and even has its own mayor.
It’s a wonderful place because it’s old and full of winding, narrow, chaotic lanes; full of history and atmosphere. And full of restaurants. Which is why it always puzzled me that the employees of my firm spent so much time and money at Betjeman’s. OK, so it’s quite close to the office but then so are many other fine establishments. I was first taken there on my very first day with the firm and even then I remember my companions saying hello to a number of other tables, so I gathered that it is a popular lunch venue among my colleagues. But for the life of me I could not see why. The menu was very standard pubby fare (although it is definitely a restaurant as opposed to a pub) – sandwiches, a couple of burgers, bangers & mash – and the space was just a collection of low-ceilinged rooms, similar to many others in the City. Apparently, though, lawyers are creatures of habit and so that’s where they went. Until the day I went with some colleagues to discover that the place was under new management and had installed a chi-chi and totally inappropriate grazing menu. I don’t personally have a problem with a grazing menu, but when you are dining with colleagues as opposed to friends, the whole idea of sharing plates becomes a little fraught. But we gamely soldiered on until one of our number asked for some tomato sauce and was told haughtily that the establishment did not possess the aforementioned condiment. You could feel the bristling disapproval in the air. Oh dear.
So that was that for a good 18 months or so. But recently we heard that it had undergone yet another change of ownership and like homing pigeons in suits, we recently went back there for lunch. What a pleasant surprise! Although the place looked identical to its previous incarnations, the menu was short and snappy and like a breath of fresh air. Butternut tart with pinenuts. Sirloin steak with a blue cheese glaze. Lamb on puy lentils. Parmesan crusted chicken. Hearty food but nothing stodgy and fuddy duddy – I was already impressed. On this occasion, I ordered smoked haddock “rarebit” served with pancetta new potatoes, while my colleagues variously had sausages and mash (the single nod to pub food), chicken breasts of some description and a gorgeous-looking individual beef Wellington. Now I can’t vouch for theirs, but let me assure you that my dish was one of the more delicious things I have eaten recently. The “rarebit” aspect of it turned out to be a fantastic cheese sauce made with zero cornflour – more like dollop of cheese fondue over a piece of smoked haddock that was cooked to flaky perfection. And underneath the haddock were three roasted new potatoes each wrapped securely in crispy pancetta. It was heavenly. (I would say that if you are avoiding salt this is probably not the dish for you, but in that case you have no business ordering smoked-haddock-and-pancetta dishes anyway…) The flavours and textures were perfect together and I found myself eating smaller and smaller mouthfuls in order to make it last. I was well and truly hooked on the new Betjeman’s.
So much so that when, a couple of weeks later, I went out to lunch with another colleague I once again suggested Betjeman’s. She had not been for a while and gave me a very dubious look, but to her credit she trusted my rave review and off we went. This time round we both had a main course portion of a salad on the starter menu that had a bit of everything I liked – bacon, croutons, blue cheese and tons ripe avocado. It was the perfect antidote to the anaemic iceberg-and-slightly-underripe-tomato offerings that you often get around here, and we were both exceedingly happy. For dessert, my friend had the white chocolate and berry (was it blueberry??) Scotch pancakes which were fluffy and good, but she was somewhat disappointed to find that the chocolate and berries were in the batter, as opposed to on top of the pancakes. I, on the other hand was totally delighted with my choice: Pimms jelly. This looked uninspiring at first – just a ramekin-sized unmoulded jelly of a vaguely burnt sienna colour. But when you took a spoonful it revealed the traditional Pimms fruit suspended in its depths. And the taste was a one hundred percent exact match for a glass of Pimms No. 1 cup. I have no idea how they got enough alcohol in there to make it taste so authentic, and yet still got the jelly to set so hard that the fruit was evenly distributed rather than congealed in a lump at the bottom. It was light and refreshing and was well matched by the unctuous blob of thick cream that accompanied it. I think I’m in love.
The service on both occasions was friendly, efficient and speedy, and the bill on the second occasion when we had two courses (but no wine) came to a very reasonable £19 per person.
43-44 Cloth Fair
Tel. 0871 4262 433