Sunday, 19 June 2011

Hawksmoor, Spitalfields

Going out with your work mates can be a challenge. Going drinking is easy. You just pick the bar that is the least offensive to the majority of the imbibers. That’s how All Bar One, Corney and Barrow and other chains operate - by offering a safe, if not slightly boring, environment. Dining with your colleagues is different.

For a start, you have to take notice of people’s dietary requirements. Do they like fish? Can then handle spicy? Are they vegetarian? Are they semi-vegetarian? (Given we work in the City I tend not to consider options for vegans.)

Then you get into the question of ambience – is it fashionable enough? Is it too fashionable? And in these credit crunched times - is it appropriate? After all, these are colleagues, not clients.

With the trend heading back towards all things carnivorous, in recent years premium brand steakhouses have thrived on serving clients, punters and colleagues alike. Arguably the best out there right now is Hawksmoor of Spitalfields, and more recently Covent Garden.

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Hawksmoor derives its name from Sir Christopher Wren’s sidekick, which implies that it’s not quite of the first order. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is a much-raved about restaurant, and with good reason.

Hawksmoor’s exterior is misleadingly anonymous, which is a long-winded way of saying that it’s understated. If it weren’t for the punters inside, you might be going into a reprographics shop rather then a restaurant. The interior is simple but pleasing. Wooden chairs and tables are packed closely together and are framed by white washed walls and exposed brickwork features. There is a long wooden bar to the rear with leather-cushioned stools packed snugly together. You’ll get to know your drinking partner quickly enough. The music is noted for its absence, but not required as the buzz of diner chat and cutlery gives it a French brasserie-style ambience.

But people are here for the food, and that’s what this review will focus on. The starters include my favourite of bone marrow and onions, delicately fried and presented with the original beef bones and toast. Soft in texture and subtle, yet offal-like in flavour. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but I love it. A companion went for the pepper squid which had been flash-fried and seasoned with chilli, salt and pepper. It packed a nice punch and was perfectly cooked.

For steaks I went for the 600g Sirloin (medium rare) which was well seasoned and melt in your mouth delicious. For the first time in my life it was too much for me to eat in one sitting. Fortunately Hawksmoor does a great ‘doggy bag'. My colleagues tried rib-eye and rump variations which were smaller but equally as flavoursome. We washed it down with a few bottles of NZ Main Divide Pinot Noir (does New Zealand do any other kind of red wine?) which was light and peppery and perfectly complementary to the mains.

The staff are friendly, casual but very efficient. Service is swift and always charming. The cocktail boys are a force in their own right. The champagne-based Hawksmoor Fizz and gin-based Bombay Double are two of their better offerings.

Despite its cusp-of-Shoreditch location, the punters are City. So much, in fact, it's why Hawksmoor has never been a favourite of the Northerner's. There are far too many bankers for her liking. But the sheer quality of the food on offer more than compensates for Hawksmoor’s City-ness. And let’s face it, at the very least you can take your colleagues there.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

40/30 Bar, 30 St Marys Axe

How do people manage to keep abreast of the number of private members clubs in London? And by 'members clubs', I’m not talking about your gentlemen-only, port-quaffing, cigar-puffing gigs that attract the same sort of people that enjoy fox hunting.

What we actually have are a whole host of venues aimed squarely at the readership of this site. Well, at least the ones who aren’t quite ready for pipes and slippers.

In the City alone, we host the trend-defining Shoreditch House, the edgier Milk and Honey group, and the more urbane Number 8 clubs. Yet there are plenty more on the horizon with the soon-to-be launched Gresham Street, and the recent discovery (for me, anyway) that is the 40/30 Bar in The Gherkin.

While I’ve always known there was a venue atop of this landmark building, I didn’t realise it was part of a private members club. Technically it’s known as Searcys Club, The Gherkin (Searcys actually being an upmarket catering company), and it pitches itself as the City’s most exclusive private members club, restaurant and Champagne Bar. But don’t they all.

Nevertheless, it doesn’t take much to imagine that if anything, 40/30 will have a good view. Well, for once I am going to agree with the PRs behind this place when they say that the views from the glass dome are simply breathtaking. If anything, that does it a slight disservice. The space on top of the Norman Foster-designed Gherkin that houses the bar is an architectural wet dream. The striking contrasts of the sky and London’s cityscape are framed by the iron girders that Foster’s engineers have forged into the dome. On a clear day you can see the best views I’ve ever seen across the city, taking in all four corners of London. The view is so impactful that it is very hard to resist spending your first 20 minutes madly snapping ‘look at me’ pix on your phone before uploading them to Facebook. But maybe that was just me.

However, you don’t go to a private members club just for the view. The bar staff are incredibly charming and very efficient. Given that it seats around 200 people and the night the Northerner and I visited it was at capacity, the team coped admirably with an excitable and thirsty crowd. We attacked the cocktail menu, and started with a couple of the Champagne variety – Gherkin Fizz with Amaretto, Blue Curacao and lemon juice; Apple Vice with Grand Marnier and apple. They were crisp and refreshing.

We then sampled two Martini cocktails – Aromatic Elixir with Tanqueray, Amaretto, LBV Port, lemon juice and strawberry puree; and the La Boheme, with Ketel One vodka, elderflower, Chambord and cranberry juice. They were both superb concoctions and we had to show considerable constraint not to have a repeat round.

Fortunately we tried two more from the long drink range, the Elderflower Collins with Hendricks gin, elderflower, lemon juice, sugar and soda, and the Mai Tai with Pamero Especial rum, Orange Curacao, orange juice, lime juice and sugar. Now, the only other time we had tried Mai Tais was in Hong Kong for the Northerner, and the legendarily-bad Covent Garden cocktail bar that was Long Island Ice Tea for me. I think it's fair to say that neither of our experiences were good. Well 40/30 overturned years of accumulated prejudice by producing a Mai Tai that was stunning. I don’t often recommend trying a particular drink, but I will in this case.

To make sure we didn’t make complete spectacles of ourselves we did sample some of the bar snacks, of which the grissini and dips (mayonnaise and green pesto) were particularly moreish.

40/30 isn’t cheap but it's not wallet busting, either. Cocktails hover around the £13 mark, which might sound steep, but for the quality and that view is money well spent.

The punters are very City – lawyers, insurance brokers, and of course, bankers. You won’t find any fashionable young things here. While the ambience, no doubt triggered by the views, is laid-back cocktail lounge. This is striking contrast to the nearby pubs and bars, which have a more frenzied atmosphere.

Searcy’s also has a club lounge on the 38th floor, a restaurant and private dining rooms for punters or execs looking to entertain in style. So far so perfect, but there is one thing that is a little odd.

To get into 40/30, you have to go via the main reception to the Gherkin. The entrance necessitates that you have a full security clearance, which actually means going through metal detectors and bag x-ray machines. You half-expect the security guards to ask you to remove your shoes. And while this is fine early on, if you were coming from another bar or restaurant later in the evening and feeling a bit ‘fresh’, negotiating the entry might prove a little bit tricky. Because after all isn’t one of the main joys of being in a private members club being the ability to drop in any time you like? There’s a lot be said for an old fashion door person to greet you. Perhaps the traditional members clubs haven’t got it all wrong.