6 Oct 2008

Feathered Fandango

'There's a famous and, I hope, apocryphal story about a diner in a London gentleman's club who raved about the delicious and succulent stuffing in his grouse. It turned out to be maggots...’
[Clifford Mould, restaurant critic]
THE ‘GLORIOUS Twelfth’ (of August) marks the first day of the shooting season for red grouse, the pin-up of the Scotch industry. I have often wondered whether these warbling birds with red-eyebrows and black tails might be more fun to shoot then eat. I decided to synchronise a sampling of the British bastion with the return of native oysters. After consulting game aficionados and oyster shuckers, I booked the legendary ‘Bentley’s Grill’ off Regent Street. My father accompanied. Having frequented the venue some 25 years earlier when it was “rather down at heel” he was delighted to note it was shabby no longer. In a heroic move in 2005, Richard Corrigan, Celtic tiger and devotee of ‘evangelical ingredientism’ purchased the clubby pile, instantly instigating a top to toe refurbishment. This labour of love by the Michelin starred chef was motivated by his toil there over a decade before…
Whilst we sipped Champagne at the marble counter of the piano bar, the restaurant manager recounted stories of his shooting trips north of the border. An intriguing insight into bird psychology. Snipe are trusting and fly erratically. Male woodcocks croak then squeak during courting. Teal are even more audible. And grouse soar into the sky when disturbed, with dramatic, whirring wing beats. Looking towards a cabinet containing assorted stuffed seagulls, he mentioned that a table of trans-Atlantic cousins had asked, “are they grouse?” the previous evening.
Flutes finished, we ventured up to the Grill and into the Edwardian era. William Morris fabric insulates the walls. Studded leather chairs meet an expanse of linen. A still life of a lobster, crab and enormous copper pot dominates, joined by anatomical fish studies. Little light fittings, which look like antlers, punctuate.
We launched lunch with a platter of oysters on the half shell. There were English, Irish and Scottish (which sounds like the start of a dire joke). The light coffee cream coloured, circular English natives had bite: firm and mouth-wateringly mineral. The similarly shaped Scots were verdegris flecked within the whitest shells. They were also the smallest with the most persistent aftertaste. The Irish rocks were elongated: supple, graceful and lean. A cucumber palate was coaxed by a glass of tangy, white Bordeaux Sauvignon Blanc. Bentley’s imports this from ‘Entre-deux-Mers’, which appropriately translates as ‘between two seas’. Its residual sweetness vanished when united with the bivalves. Between each morsel, I liberally spreaded organic golden butter over moist, malty Irish seeded bread and acrid Soda, baked on site.
Rather than hastily swallow (on Swallow street), I chew oysters, savouring the glossy texture – ‘like kissing the sea on the lips’ according to French poet Léon-Paul Fargue. I prefer them naked too, shunning prickly shallot vinegar, overly acidic lemon and frankly bludgeoning Tabasco.
Little espresso cups of Game, Truffle and Chestnut Soup, like liquefied Stroganoff, provided a nurturing, earthy interval.
A dense tile of game terrine followed, served with a hardcore chutney of ‘mustard fruits’ and a buoyant, arctic raspberry scented Pinot Noir. Game and red Burgundy is a classic match. Each element seldom overpowers. Our version came from further afield, however. Whilst more commonly known as ‘Middle Earth’ since that tedious trilogy of films occurred there, New Zealand’s Central Otago region features the world’s most southerly vineyards. For me, though, the wines seem like caricatures.
It was by now time for the grouse, nimbly carved at table. A surprisingly small bird when plucked, it yielded an intense aroma. Imagine a gentleman’s club: cigar smoke trails twirling amidst decanters of mature claret and polished panelling. It was sealed on the outside with a pinkish, moist, remarkably tender texture within. The skewered livers, served separately, had an unadulterated earthiness. Shredded cabbage and bacon temporarily toned this down. A lustrous reduction coated. Overall it was so intensely compelling that I wish I had asked to keep the carcass to gnaw away the final scraps. An angular, elegant and refreshing Chianti accompanied, tasting of bitter cherries, cedar and cold mash.
A wide brimmed, chilled trifle was perfectly layered, from reservoir of crunchy fruits to pistachio dusted, creamy top. Alongside, a sweet Riesling added the taste of ripe currants and a cleansing acidity. Immaculate macchiatos followed.
By now the dining room was almost empty. On a trip to the old school loos, complete with marble splash backs, I almost became wedged between the door and a gent’s tummy. Judging by his admirable bulk, I imagined him to be a Bentley’s habitué. For an instant I glimpsed a future vision of myself….
‘Bentley’s Grill’ - 11-15 Swallow Street, London. W1B 4DG. T. 020 7734 4756
Nearest Tube: Piccadilly Circus
Bentley's on Urbanspoon

Grouse is in season until 10TH December
Native oysters are generally available from mid September until the end of April
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