A recent reservation at the Seven Dials outpost of the lauded Hawksmoor chain of restaurants had me all a quiver with anticipation. My brother had visited on several times previously, rating it highly on each visit: rare enough in itself but particularly unusual for a steakhouse. I might be unlucky, but in my experience it is nigh-on impossible to find a good steak in a restaurant, either due to the quality of beef used or to the inability of the kitchen brigade to cook your chosen cut in the manner requested or, worst of all, to both of the above.
My father has a policy of defensive ordering when faced with a hostile menu: he will opt for a simple dish that should pose no problems for either kitchen or diner. What his optimism fails to let him realise is that a dish as simple as a steak provides the kitchen with nowhere to hide any shortcomings. There are no sauces, exotic spice combinations or elaborate panoplies of ingredients to mask mistakes; the quality of the single raw ingredient and the chef’s ability are all that matter. Unfortunately, dad is all too often disappointed.
My expectations of most restaurants are rather more realistic and my instincts are usually reasonably accurate, I don’t know if it is experience or cynicism that result in me rarely being surprised. That is why I don’t like to read a restaurant’s menu before dining there: it will often tell me everything I need to know about the meal that awaits me. Despite what I have just said, I still enjoy being surprised by the quality of an unexpectedly great restaurant.
Apart from Rick’s glowing reviews of its cocktails and its steaks, I didn’t know a great deal about Hawksmoor. I needed contact details to book a table, and I must admit that curiosity got the better of me whilst viewing its website as I broke my own rule, perusing its menu and winelist at the same time. In some ways I was a little disappointed: the menu was simple and relatively spartan; in other ways I was intrigued: the quality of the ingredients and competence of the kitchen must both be high for the concept to work. The winelist was comprehensive but not encyclopaedic, with a well thought out selection at or under the £50 mark. However…
Hidden away in the small print at the bottom of the menu was a brief note that my eyes scanned over before doing a double take. I had to re-read those two brief sentences because their implications were immense. They read:
Had it been a Monday night that I had reserved a table for, I’m sure I’d have felt as though I’d won the lottery. As it was, £25 per bottle to drink whatever I wanted was too much of a bargain to pass up. At this point I should probably explain my attitude towards the bottles in my cellar: I don’t buy wine to resell it for a profit; I buy it as an investment in my drinking future. However expensive a wine might be today, I can pretty much guarantee that I won’t be able to afford it (or be able to find it for sale) when it reaches its ideal drinking window. By the time most of my wines are ready to drink the pain of their purchase price has long been forgotten, allowing me to enjoy them as intended, shared with loved ones and paired with something delicious.
Paying £25 to drink my own bottle of wine might seem extortionate, until you add up the numbers. On the assumption that many central London restaurants work on a markup of five times cost for the majority of the bottles on their winelist, we could enjoy several hundreds of pounds worth of wine for what was suddenly becoming a far less significant corkage charge. As I mentioned above, there wasn’t going to be a lot of change from £50 for an average bottle of wine from Hawksmoor’s list. I could spend the same amount, take two of my own bottles and really make the evening special. So that’s what I did.
The advantage of having read the menu ahead of time was that I had a good idea of what I was going to order, I just had to decide which bottles I wanted to take. It’s not often enough that the brothers Morris hit the town together, and, living in London, it’s not often enough that Rick gets to share the treats of my cellar. A little decadence was called for and I hope I rose to the occasion.
Quite by chance, I chose two bottles from the same year: a Louis Roederer vintage Champagne and a Gaja Barbaresco, both from 1996. I’d bought both at auction; I had half a case of the Roederer and I had tried it previously, but the Gaja was only a two-bottle lot. A big night out and a good steak were the perfect excuses to try the first one.
Our table was booked for 8.30p.m., but after spending the afternoon wandering around various photographic exhibitions and with both of us having skipped lunch in anticipation of a substantial dinner, we were close to starving by 8.15p.m. when we sat down in the bar for a pre-dinner Negroni.
On Rick’s recommendation (he went glassy-eyed at the recollection of eating it previously), we both opted for the Bone Marrow with Onions to start with. I’d reasoned the richness of the bone marrow would work really well with the richness and firm structure of the Champagne, the only flaw in my logic was that I hadn’t expected the onion component to be quite as sweet as it was. The 1996 Louis Roederer (12% ABV) was an absolute triumph. Pale gold with a very fine, persistent bead, suggesting a degree of maturity and of quality. The rich, toasty nose flew from the glass, with savoury autolytic notes and slightly saline lemon zest fruit adding to its allure. Dry and creamy on the palate, with toasted brioche and gentle notes of salinity and baking spice over almost candied lemon zest fruit. Everything was perfectly à point, there was no hint of the green, appley character found in younger or lesser sparkling wines. A beautifully soft mousse and a hugely long finish kept me coming back for more. I don’t know what else to say about the Louis Roederer 1996 other than it was utterly, utterly brilliant and already a candidate for my 2013 bottle of the year. I’d say it has reached its plateau of maturity, drink yours now and over the next year or two.
For our main courses we were only ever likely to choose steak. We originally contemplated one of the larger cuts to share, but in the end the lure of longer ageing won us over. Although a less valued cut, we couldn’t resist the 55 day ageing period of the 350g D-Rump and we ordered a 400g Rib Eye, aged for the chain’s standard 35 day period, with the intention of sharing and comparing them both. I’d double decanted the 1996 Gaja Barbaresco (13.5% ABV) about half an hour before we left the house and it had probably been open for about an hour and a half to two hours by the time we started to drink it. I found it difficult to ascertain the exact colour in the low light of the restaurant, but the depth and hue certainly didn’t appear old and tired.
We were busy chatting and eating when the red was first poured, and it must have been open about three and half hours by the time I wrote my tasting note. The nose was meaty and oaky, with dark berry fruit and a whiff of roasted coffee. At seventeen years old this good rather than excellent vintage was possibly a touch over the hill but remained beautifully rich and well defined. Coffee-laced bramble fruit and creamy oak flavours lead to a hugely long, toasty and savoury/umami finish. At this point my notes ended with the accurate, if not especially helpful, comment: “Rather too tipsy to report further”.
As we suspected the D-Rump won the flavour contest, but I do enjoy the taste and texture of a fine piece of Rib Eye cooked rare and it certainly held its own. Needless to say, we left Hawksmoor replete and somewhat squiffy, but it was certainly a rare occurrence for every aspect of a restaurant meal to live up to, and even exceed, all of my expectations.