'You needn't tell me that a man who doesn't love oysters and asparagus and good wines has got a soul, or a stomach either. He's simply got the instinct for being unhappy highly developed...'
[Hector Hugh Munro, author]
I AM in awe of Theo Randall. I had one of the most flavoursome dishes this year in his eponymous restaurant, a sullen Mayfair crypt, late Friday. After bruschetta which almost rivalled my friend Enrica’s, laced with sweet cherry tomatoes and olive oil so fresh it was almost a caricature, this seasonally inclined genius served antipasti which left me with my tongue hanging free. The cause: a crisp bundle of British Asparagus, invigoratingly massaged with Anchovy Butter and Rosemary flecks, crowned with roughly Shaved pineapple evoking Parmesan. I attacked it with ergonomically perfect Bugatti cutlery. A taste of the soil and of the sea. The saltiness of the Parmesan accentuated the anchovy, softened by the creaminess of the butter. Reminiscent of Gentleman's Relish. This, combined with a forkful of my companion’s rich green and white asparagus risotto, left me pathetically poised to lick the plate. Enough of an incentive to inspire an ‘asparagus diet’.
Randall cut his teeth at The River Café, with a sabbatical at Chez Panisse. Whilst lunch at Claridge’s is half the price of a meal at his former Hammersmith hangout, I sometimes furtively sneak an online peak at their bill of fare. I often manage to sample similar food at another ex-River Cafeian’s pub, Richard Stokes’s Three Horseshoes in Cambridge.
Anyway, a last minute offer allowed me affordable insight into the charm of gastronomically gentrified peasant food in an otherwise hateable hotel.
The grammatically questionable InterContinental, Mayfair was recently renovated to the tune of £countless millions. Jellyfish tendril chandeliers loom nearly to the floor in the lobby. To the left, an appalling bar with slovenly deep chairs for shallow sitters. To the right, an automatically sliding door into Randall’s burrow. I would describe the windows of this slate dark quadrangle as ecclesiastical slits. The vast kitchen is just about visible through another incision in the Tate Modern style dark panel. Sunflowers, doomed never again to photosynthesise, dot the cube.Despite arriving early, we were swiftly seated by a glass partition, deeply etched with oversized blades of grass. To our right, courting Muslims whose dietary requirements were tolerantly deciphered by a courteous waitress.
Cuddled by a light leather rolling captain’s chair, I was much lower than my companion, who perched on a rouge banquette. A Bristol blue candle flickered.Two flutes of pear and gingerbread scented Billecart Champagne (the house still family owned) were poured to the tip, evoking an effervescent infinity pool. In the distance, under a rainbow print which looked like a Test Card, an American gent, scale of a whale, complained about the wine list lacking French focus. Whilst it has plentiful French bins, Italy is rightfully given prominence. Mark-ups are incidentally not as vertigenous as neighbouring hotels. The sommelier elegantly diffused his tensions without sounding remotely patronising.
Opposite, an Italian family, around a circular table, finished their desserts and wiped their mouths. Their youngest looked out of place in this stiff environment. Not that Theo Randall, hater of ‘formality and pretence’ seeks to ostracise. The aloof interior designer is to blame.
Following the eulogised asparagus javelins, the prima piatti: Handmade Spinach Ravioli with Sheep’s Ricotta. The irregular, light dough parcels, presented with no pretence, tasted green and wholesome. Freshly powdered parmesan was offered in a Wedgwood bowl, an appropriate metaphor for the restaurant: Italian staples served in a posh British place.The secondo piatti: medium rare Chargrilled Aberdeen Angus Sirloin with Portobello and Porcini Mushrooms lacquered with crisp, tangy, parsley dominated Salsa Verde and lemon. I had forgotten how delicious a squeeze of lemon on a thin steak is. The acidity helps break down the protein, as does a glass of wine. Rocket leaves added a tantalising spicy prickle. A youthful, shapely Montepulciano with a hint of nutmeg, was included in our offer, sipped from Riedel glasses.White Peach Sorbet, peculiarly served in a brown bowl, retained texture and acidity. I decanted a little sparkling Moscato to cheer things up. I volunteered to gobble the handmade dark chocolate truffles, which bevelled the meal. They reminded me of my grandmother’s version and luxuriously melted urgently.
I felt maximum potential was coaxed from every ingredient, served by alert staff with saintly patience. The corporate surroundings and clattering, indiscreet acoustics tried mine, however.
On the pavement outside, I initially mistook a lagoon of Ketchup for a bloodbath.
On the subject of the River Café, I once read that the original formica River 'Caff' in Putney Bridge patiently fends a constant attack of callers seeking a reservation in the Hammersmith version...
Theo Randall - 1 Hamilton Place, Park Lane, London W1J 7QY. T. 020 7318 8747
Tube: Hyde Park Corner