What a day - Matt and Cat had been whisked around London, relished some great food and drink, and seen some wonderful sights.
The provincial unsophisticates really enjoyed the big city; especially in comfort from the back of a black taxi. The final stop on their tour was the highlight - a visit to Hawksmoor, the celebrated steakhouse over which critics have raved and drooled.
Meat. It’s a simple thing, an atavistic thing, and somehow an emotional thing. Meat arouses emotion in us in a way that other food does not. Some choose to forswear it entirely. Most don’t. Of those who do eat meat, if you ask them for their favourite dish, there’s a pretty good chance that it would not only be meat, but beef. And of those who would favour beef, how many would choose a really good steak as their top meal? In this country, it really is the number one favourite dish (although, surprisingly, not in America). So when somebody sets out to cook the best steak in London, what they probably mean is that it's the best steak in the world. And, in such a crowded market, it better had be. Hawksmoor’s massive success suggests that they may actually have achieved this remarkable feat.
Relieved of their coats, which were swapped for numbered vintage cigarette cards, Matt and Cat's party was guided down a wide staircase. The legend 'Beef and Liberty' was painted onto the wall, leaving the visitors in no doubt what they were in for as they descended into a vast, bustling, vaulted dungeon simply rammed with people eating meat. Just meat? Not at all. Cocktails are a big feature, and M&C quizzed the knowledgeable waiter about the various concoctions on offer. Cat immediately went off-menu and commissioned a specially-made non-alcoholic Mojito, which came in at the awesomely cheap price of £3. The others imbibed stronger stuff - fortifying themselves for the beef extravaganza that they’d travelled so far to experience.
Meat was soon to hand. At Hawksmoor, you order your beef by the 100g, with the invitation to order a large steak to share. The menu explains how to do this, and the staff are also full of advice. The team behind Hawksmoor is particularly keen on sizable chunks of steak, recommending that you "...buy big. The aim is to get a good char on the outside while keeping the meat juicy and tender inside; this is difficult with a thin piece of meat." With that in mind, Matt chose a 600g bone-in sirloin. He wanted his beef on the bone as that’s rarely on offer in pubs and restaurants on the Isle of Wight. Cat, usually impossible to deter from the prospect of beef fillet, was mindful of the feasting she’d already indulged in that day and made the unexpected choice of half a Dorset blue lobster with hazelnut butter.
The slab of beef which arrived, unadorned, on Matt’s plate was a stunning specimen. With bone in and fat on, it smelt more like a Sunday joint than a charcoal grill, and the delicious beef dripping chips and peppercorn sauce that he’d ordered to go with it went almost disregarded. If you need to know what Hawksmoor steak is like, you can ask just about every food critic in London. Matt would merely add his assenting voice to the panegyrical chorus. This really was a sublime meat experience, so much so that next time Matt and Cat’s friend the celebrated US meat blogger Another Pint Please comes to England, this is beyond doubt the place he should go.
Although teasing their Twitter readers with the prospect of having half a lobster, bone marrow and two fried eggs (all of which were options on the Hawksmoor menu), Cat decided to be coy and just have the lobster. Ignoring Matt’s fiercest stare - honestly, they’d come to a steak house and she ordered a starter as her main course, and a crustacean at that - Cat received her dish with enthusiasm. Matt boasted of the thrill of bone-in meat and Cat feebly tried to join in with the big boys, bragging about her shell-on lobster but it didn’t cut much ice with the steak eaters. Like all half lobsters, there’s not much to say about its appearance other than it looked like half a lobster, with roughly fifty percent of its legs and feelers present and its interior flesh laid bare. The meat was lovely and tender although, to be honest, the hazelnut butter didn’t really have the nutty taste that Cat was expecting. Nonetheless, the beast was tasty with more than a hint of garlic and, with some triple-cooked chips and peppery creamed spinach, made a decent meal.
The rest of the party had suffered from food blow-out but moderate Cat still had room for pudding. Examining the dessert menu she and Matt were amused to see 'Shipwreck' ten-year old apple brandy retrieved from the MSC Napoli. Matt had spent some considerable time helping with the clear-up from this wreck whose contaminated cargo washed ashore on some of the Island's most beautiful beaches. Cat decided to indulge her sweet tooth with peanut butter shortbread with salted caramel ice cream. Suddenly finding their second wind and determined not to be left out, the chaps ordered a plate of cheese to share.
600g sirloin steak £30
Half lobster £17.50
Beef dripping chips £4
Triple-cooked chips £4
Creamed spinach £4
Peppercorn sauce £2
'7 Dials' cheese board £9
Peanut butter shortbread £6.75
P.X. treacle cocktail £8.50
Apple juice Mojito £3
Service charge at 12.5% £11.84
The cheese selection was a few soft and hard varieties served with biscuits and chutney. Matt was curious about their provenance but, despite the waiter making several trips to the kitchen and eventually reading their names from a list, it still wasn't clear which cheese was which. This was quite a blip in otherwise reasonable service - in the end it just seemed kinder to give up asking. The chap either didn't know what the cheese was, or couldn't make himself understood. Cat's scribbled notes suggest that one was called Montgomery's cheddar. Cat had also written down the words of her companions as they worked their way around the board: "The rindy one had more than a hint of farmyard slurry". The steak was without question the King of Steaks but the cheese was more like the Knave of Cheeseboards.
Despite the let-down of the cheese, Cat's pudding was an understated gem. She'd anticipated a flat cookie and a scoop of ice cream. What she got was, to be frank, not the most visually appealing dessert; the lumpen biscuit supporting a dollop of brown ice cream was rather mocked when it was presented to Cat. She had the last laugh though as, on breaking open the warm pastry, its nutty sweet filling oozed out and mingled seductively with the salty cool ice cream. It was a great combination of textures, tastes and temperatures. Fabulous!
The meal - and the day's 'Four Go Mad in London' eatathon - was finished off with delicious coffee. Leaning back and gingerly patting their distended stomachs the quartet had a last look around Hawksmoor. Most assuredly worth the trip from the Isle of Wight, for a meatophile like Matt it was the ultimate venue. Matt and Cat considered how they may have reviewed this venue had it been local to them. Well, the extra charge for chips and veg would have come in for some stinging criticism. You know, out here in the sticks, we prefer to pay for an entire meal, not to have necessary additions at extra charge. And any regular reader will know what Matt and Cat think about a mandatory service charge. Just because everywhere in London seems to do it is not reason enough to follow suite. It's wrong and misleading to add 12.5% to the bill. Put it on the basic prices and let people add their own tips, or not. And you can make your own mind up about Hawksmoor's prices. For Matt and Cat, that level of expenditure puts this visit on the level of a real special treat.
Still, Hawksmoor won't be bothered by the carping of these visiting gadflies, when near-universal plaudits and full tables speak volumes. The meat really was without compare, the venue was exciting and entertaining, and the concept of a large-scale steakhouse has been without doubt elevated from the down-market ubiquitous pub supper to an eating experience worth crossing the country for. That achievement in itself is remarkable. And yet let's hope piously that Hawksmoor won't be resting on their numerous laurels. There are three Hawksmoor venues in London so far, and surely they are contemplating more. They should. It takes a very special restaurant formula to succeed outside the hothouse of London, but this just could be one.