Well, now you can solve that little problem. All you have to do is decide to organise a surprise party for your husband’s birthday! Plus then you make sure that the two of you see and socialize with almost ALL of the guests in the weeks before the party, consuming copious amounts of wine, so that your panic about somebody saying the wrong thing and spoiling the surprise is maximised. And then make sure that 20 minutes before you are due to walk through the door of the restaurant and hear people yelling "SURPRISE!!", your husband and your friend Paul decide that this is a good time to rewire the entire network of computer equipment in your house. And of course, you can’t say "we have to go, there are people waiting!". You just have to stamp your foot till they listen.
Sounds like fun, huh?!
The one thing I didn’t want to stress about was the restaurant – I wanted somewhere I knew and liked, and that was unfussy enough for Nick would like. It would also be a bonus if it was kid-friendly and not too crazy busy. I have to say that I did call the Gaucho Grill in the docklands, but they were so uppity with £35 a head set menus for tables of 8+, funny seating times etc. etc. that I gave up almost immediately. Heaven help you if you plan to eat there with a large family! And then I remembered 1802. In the interests of full disclosure I will point out that the head chef at 1802 has been a friend of my brother’s since school back in South Africa. So when my brother came to visit me last year, we went for lunch at 1802 to see what it was that Gustav was doing to earn a living.
1802 is the restaurant and bar (operated by the Searcy’s group) attached to the Museum in Docklands and both are housed in the historic Gwilt sugar warehouses that line West India Quay in London’s docklands. The name derives from the year that the warehouses were built, and the interior preserves the original brickwork and beautiful timber supports. The area is divided roughly into a bar area (with wonderful squishy leather sofas) and a dining area. The attractively backlit bar is very well stocked and very busy on weeknights. In fact, during our lunch we had a discussion about the volume of draught beer sold there per week and let me assure you, it’s staggering! I think this rampant popularity as a drinking spot for off-duty Canary Wharf bankers is what makes people dismiss the restaurant: pop your head round the door on a Thursday night and it just looks like a hundred other packed docklands wine bars. But, as I have discovered, there is another side.
My first visit was last Spring, on a weekday lunchtime, with brother, sister-in-law and young nephew in tow. When the room is emptier, you notice the original features and it is actually a rather restful and inviting space. The menu is largely dictated by the fact that you are in the heart of a historic British area and sticks fairly closely to the Modern British idea. Seasonal produce treated carefully, reworked classics – you get the picture. But what sets it apart from many other places doing this, is the amount of love and care that has obviously gone into the sourcing of excellent ingredients, not messing with them too much, and the truly lovely plating of each dish. Here’s what I had:
To start, I had the fantastic air-dried Cumbrian ham and truffled pecorino cheese on roasted cherry tomatoes and balsamic glazed baby onions. This dish knocked my socks off. Really. The ham could rival the best that Spain and Italy has to offer and was living proof that all is not lost for regional British specialities. I have a weakness for truffled cheese and this pecorino was a particularly lovely example. And of course both the salty meat and cheese worked fantastically well with the sweetness of the roasted tomatoes and glazed onions. Inspired. And my main was the beautiful seasonal dish pictured above right: pan-fried fillet of wild sea trout on crushed marjoram Jersey royals with a white asparagus veloute. This is exactly the way I like to eat fish. Just cooked, but with a lovely crispy skin, allowing the natural flavour of the fish to shine. The marjoram scented Jersey Royal potatoes were the perfect accompaniment and the asparagus veloute tasted of spring without overpowering the fish.
I didn’t take pictures of everybody’s food, but my brother or his wife must have had the renowned 1802 lamb burger with tzatziki (either that or I went around taking pictures of random strangers’ food – anything is possible!). The burger itself is more of a slightly flattened lamb meatball than the traditionally flat ‘n flaccid grey rubber that passes for burger patties. The fact that it is so thick means it can be thoroughly cooked on the outside for the proper burger flavour, but the inside remains pink, lamby and flavourful. The tzatziki gives the whole thing a slightly Middle-Eastern twist – it really works for me. And we won’t even start on the stacked chunky chips which were crisp outside, fluffy inside and as fresh as can be. For dessert, there was no way I was going anywhere except directly for the chocolate creme brulee. I don’t know whose evil mind thought this up, but bless their cotton socks. Eating this is like eating solid chocolate that has been thoughtfully pre-melted so as to soften it and spare your mouth the hard work. I ate with a teensy spoon and ate slower and slower because I never wanted it to finish. All I might have said was that it needed something a little tart to balance the chocolate, but that did little to detract from the deliciousness of this dessert. And just to prove 1802′s kid-friendly credentials, here is my adorable nephew tucking into his strawberry ice cream before going to play in the museum’s activity room.
It was these warm and fuzzy memories of 1802 that made me decide on it as a suitable venue for Nick’s surprise birthday lunch recently. In total contrast to the Gaucho Grill, they had no problem with a big table ordering a la carte, they didn’t need a credit card to confirm the booking, and they weren’t fussy about what time we could be seated – all rare attributes in a London restaurant. To be fair, weekend brunch is not their busy time so they can afford to be a little more relaxed – but it is definitely a winning situation for the customer. The weather was particularly foul that afternoon – a howling gale channeled into wind tunnels by the Canary Wharf tower blocks and driving rain – but arriving at the restaurant was like arriving at your extremely wealthy friend’s loft apartment. The warm colours of the wooden floors and ancient brickwork were accented with twinkly Christmas lights and sinking into the leather couches felt like coming home. I’m sure it didn’t hurt that I know the chef, but I must say that we were treated like royalty from start to finish. All our friends turned up promptly at 12h30 and as soon as they identified themselves as part of our group our charming waitress Raphaele brought them a champagne cocktail each. Nick was extremely surprised to find them all there when we arrived 40 mins later, and the scene was set for a long and lazy afternoon of eating and drinking with good friends.
The menu over weekend is a brunch menu as opposed to the full a la carte available on weekdays, but there were still a good 5 or 6 starters and main courses to choose from. Best of all was the 2 or 3-course special price – a ridiculous £14 for 2 courses or £17 for three. At that price it would be churlish not to go the whole hog. But before we even got to what I ordered, Gustav had prepared a little surprise for Nick’s birthday: a pre-starter of Cape Malay prawn and chicken curry pictured below left. This was fantastic, and a voyage of discovery for the tastebuds of our friends who do not know South African cuisine that well. Cape Malay curries are known for their intriguing sweet-savoury flavours rather than their toe-curling heat and this was no exception, with the sweet and spicy sauce gently livening up the chicken and jucy prawn. I’d like to order a main course portion of this! For my starter I was torn between the pan-fried livers on toast, the nut-crusted goat’s cheese and the mushrooms on toast with a poached egg. But in the end, the promise of a perfectly poached egg (something that I never make for myself at home) won the day. And I was not disappointed! The bread had all the sinful deliciousness of a giant crouton; the mushrooms were plentiful and drizzled liberally with truffle oil; and the poached egg was perfection personified. I also had a taste of Nick’s delicious London Particular – a robust pea soup made with bacon stock and named after London’s famous "peasouper" fogs of the early 20th century.
For my main course I was once again dithering between the intriguing pollack on smoked haddock mash, but given the wintry weather outside I could not resist the lamb chop with a rosemary balsamic reduction, anchovy butter and lashings of garlic, with a giant portabello mushroom and spinach on the side. And I must say, seldom has so fabulous a piece of lamb graced a London plate. In effect, it was two conjoined lamb chops, thickly sliced so that it could remain demurely pink on the inside, while the outside could be grilled to perfection. The rosemary and balsamic reduction was spectacular, particularly as it mingled with the anchovy butter. And the mushroom was a meal in itself. Carnivore heaven. If I had one complaint it was the side order of chips that we ordered separately. These were soggy rather than crisp – which is odd because the chips that came with the fish and chips were crispy and delicious, so it’s not as if they can’t do properly crisp chips… But the garlicky mayonnaise that accompanied it went a long way to making up for the lack of crunch.
By rights, I should have stopped after that. But you know how it goes. If two courses can make me feel this good, imagine how good three courses will make me feel!! And so I went for the blow-out and ordered the one and only chocolate creme brulee again. It was as perfectly textured and flavoured as I remembered, but this time I was more aware of the balancing burnt-caramel flavour of the topping, and it was served with a compote (cranberry?) which was wonderfully tart and provided the perfect foil to stop it from being overpoweringly sweet. I would quite happily have licked the bowl had we not been in company.
As I said, the brunch menu costs a ridiculous £17 for three courses, so if one of your criteria for a good restaurant is value for money, you will fall instantly in love with 1802. I, on the other hand, remain in love with the casually elegant room, the friendly and efficient service (our table of 15 all got our food at the same time, and hot, which seems to be an impossibility in some restaurants…), the excellent ingredients and the unfussy style of cooking. I maintain that it’s the best kept value-for-money secret in the Docklands. But don’t tell anybody. I’d hate the secret to get out
Best of all is the fact that for a measly £5 raffle ticket, you can win a £75 voucher to spend on food or drink at 1820. All you need to do is check out my Menu for Hope post and then visit the Firstgiving site where you can buy tickets priced at $10 (£5) each and specify prize code UK17 to win the voucher. All the money raised goes to via the UN’s World Food programme to a school feeding scheme in Lesotho – a country close to my home and therefore close to my heart.
And as a final bonus pic, here we all are, celebrating Nick’s birthday at 1802!
The Museum in Docklands
West India Quay
Tel. 0870 444 3886
Fax 020 7537 1149