Question: how does a girl celebrate a her birthday with a swanky dinner in London in the middle of a recession?
Answer: have the good fortune to have a birthday falling slap bang in the middle of London Restaurant Week.
The slightly misleadingly-named London restaurant week is in fact an annual 2-week event where some of the capital's top restaurants offer meals at a discounted rate. Last year I managed to squeeze two restaurant visits in during the event – one to Refettorio and one to 1 Lombard Street, which is how I knew that this would be a perfectly lovely place to celebrate my birthday last month!
From the minute that you walk through the doors, right opposite the swanky Royal Exchange, everything about this 1-Michelin starred restaurant and brasserie imparts a sense of occasion. The brasserie is situated in a former banking hall with a Grade II listed neo-classical interior, all 20ft high ceilings & marble floors, and above the circular bar there is a beautiful glass dome designed by Pietro Agostini. After some rather jovial drinks in this lovely setting, we were shown to our table in the more formal restaurant (the decor of which is apparently inspired by Titian's The Rape of Europa. Who knew?!).
Austrian executive head chef Herbert Berger has been heading up the kitchen for nearly a decade, but his previous experience includes Claridge's, Mirabelle and The Connaught, as well as his own restaurant (Keats). Although the menu for London Restaurant week was a set menu, I did take a peek at their regular (largely modern European) menu which includes such temptations as seared foie gras with sweet and sour endive tarte tatin; squab pigeon with chorizo and chickpea rissoles; and roasted pineapple with Sichuan pepper in a lime, ginger and coriander syrup. I could hardly wait to see what the set menu had in store for us.
We started with warm bread and an amuse bouche of leek and potato veloute, served in an espresso cup (which always pleases me!). This was velvety smooth and both the flavour and seasoning were perfectly pitched. The starter was a vision of pale perfection: a smoked haddock risotto with soft-boiled quail eggs on an English mustard and lemon veloute. The risotto was textbook-perfect al dente and the salty haddock was the perfect match for the softly yielding quail eggs. I also loved the tang of the veloute which did much to cut the rich taste of the risotto – in fact, I could happily have ordered a very large portion of this.
The main course was probably the least successful in my opinion. This was a pavé of Angus steak, with morels & vin jeaune sauce and vegetable fondant. Pavé is a lesser known cut of beef here in the UK but is loved by French butchers for its flavour, if not its tenderness. So I was expecting chewier meat than your average steak (which was what I got), but in general I fail to get too excited about a slab of meat unless the meat is truly exceptional. On the plus side, I asked for medium rare and it did in fact arrive perfectly pink in the middle, despite being a thin piece of meat. What I did like rather a lot was the sauce – but then I am a sucker for morels! So all in all, a ho-hum main course.
Clearly they were saving themselves for the all-singing, all-dancing dessert. After we had cleansed our palates with an excellent but hard-to-photograph blueberry sorbet, the dessert arrived. OMG, this was good: a gratin of pears in a Sauterne sabayon gratin, topped with chocolate sorbet in a chocolate tuille basket. I think it should be compulsory to serve pears and chocolate together – I really do. The pears in their warm and slightly alcoholic sabayon were light in contrast to the chocolate; they were warm in contrast to the sorbet; and they were soft in contrast to the crunch of the tuillle. And the chocolate sorbet was a revelation – no ice crystals, just smooth bitter chocolate set in a delightfully crispy chocolate tuille with the flavours of burnt caramel. It was absolutely delightful, and I found myself eating smaller and smaller mouthfuls to make it last longer. Really.
To accompany this, we had a couple of bottles of the excellent South African Glen Carlou Pinot Noir, and a bottle of prosecco with dessert. But even with all this alcoholioc extravagance, the London Restaurant Week pricesmeant that the entire bill was only about £50 per head, which was outstanding value, given the plushness of the setting, the standard of the servoce, and the quality of the food.
Without the London Restaurant Week discount, starters vary between £6 and £9; main courses start from about £15, and desserts are about £9; or there's a 9-course tasting menu for £45. If that's too rich for your blood, dining in the brasserie under that lovely dome always an option – they offer a £19.50 2-course or a £24.50 3-course menu.
I Lombard Street provides everything I'd like a restaurant to provide: a little old school glamour, excellent and professional service; and a menu that may not be cutting edge, but that contains proper grown-up food made from excellent ingredients. I may just have to make it my regular birthday haunt…
Verdict: well-prepared grown-up food served with aplomb in a gorgeous, glamorous setting
My latest column over at the Food24 site went live today – all about the world's hottest chillies – do pop over and take a look!
Don't forget to get your entries in for this month's Waiter, There's Something in My… challenge. The theme is retro classics, so think prawn cocktail, melba toast and steak Diane! The deadline is Sunday 3 May.