Friday, 12 August 2011
Galvin at Windows 2011, Mayfair
Up on the 28th floor of the Park Lane Hilton, nestled in a soft beige sofa, plied with cold champagne and nibbles, it's tempting to think you're somehow immune to life's problems. From this perch in the clouds, London is calm and quiet, the lush green of Hyde Park, the lines of traffic shuffling up and down Edgware Road, the rolling hills of Hampstead in the far distance - you're presented with an idealised version of the city, safe, serene, beautiful.
Unfortunately, events this week have revealed a side of the capital that are pretty far from ideal. I spent Tuesday night sat in the dark at the back of my house near Clapham Junction, kept awake by a combination of police helicopters, terrifying rolling news reports and the occasional distant scream, desperately hoping nobody would run out of estate agents windows to smash and instead turn their attention to my front room. In the morning, the walk to work was strewn with discarded coat hangers and empty shoe boxes, and even before I hit the police cordon on Lavender Hill I'd passed numerous looted buildings. I was relieved that the lovely people at Mien Tay looked like they'd escaped the worst of it, though God knows what kind of evening they and their customers had, being so close to the violence. But it was the sight of a hastily abandoned meal still on the table amidst the broken glass at Pizza Express that was particularly traumatising. Nobody deserves that, not even people who choose to spend their evening in Pizza Express.
You could see the columns of smoke from fires in Battersea and elsewhere from Galvin @ Windows, staff told me last night. That must have been strange, trying to carry on as normal in their restaurant in the sky, knowing what was happening to their own houses and neighbourhoods as London broke and burned on the streets below. Some of the stories that emerged from that night are hideous, but it's never been truer to say that when times are hard, real heroes are born. People like the staff of the Ledbury, who fought off a mob with kitchen utensils and fat fryers, locked frightened guests in the wine cellar for safety, and refused payment even when grateful customers returned the next day and offered to settle up. And people like the Turkish restaurateurs of Stoke Newington who instead of shuttering up and giving in, gathered their friends and bravely stood down the rioters using broken chair legs and cook's knives, their businesses - and dignity - protected.
So, yes, it's been a funny old week, one that puts the silly business of writing restaurant reviews into pretty sharp perspective, and I'm not going to pretend I'm the least bit qualified to offer any commentary on the causes or solutions, or pontificate grandly on what it means for London or the UK that a significant minority of our population seem to have decided that there are no important repercussions to beating your way into Jessops and nicking an armful of digital cameras. It's unfathomable; I literally do not - probably never will - understand it at all, and so I won't try. I'll just get back to doing what I normally do on this blog, and tell you what I had for dinner last night.
One of the reasons I find the food at Windows so interesting is that I've seen it, over the years I've been a very infrequent visitor, gradually morph from very traditional French haute cuisine to dishes that are far more recognisably English. They still have a refined style and are immaculately presented in that way that the top French chefs know so well, but there's a refreshing lack of pretension and an honesty to the ingredients that is far closer to, say, L'Enclume and even St John than temples of French gastronomy like Le Gavroche. An amuse of vegetable consommé was fresh and well seasoned and clean tasting, not to mention looking very attractive, a light cheesy gougere on a chocolately olive paste matching the vegetable broth with rich pastry and dairy, but all the flavours were precise and familiar, just done very well. And I liked another canapé-style radish and spring onion bites dipped in sweet Romesco sauce, summery and colourful.
Pigeon breast, gamey and soft and full of flavour, was served with a dainty toast and paté of some kind and an artful smattering of beetroot rolls and sweet blobs of blackcurrant. What made this dish special though was a toasty slick of pine nut paste of some kind and roasted pine nuts, the earthy savoury flavour of the nuts adding a wonderful extra dimension.
This truffle-fried egg was apparently an interloper from the full tasting menu, and was suitably decadently dressed in fresh sliced black truffle. Perfectly seasoned and timed to runny perfection, it made me think that Galvin should seriously consider entering next month's Scotch Egg Challenge at the Ship - wrap a bit of sausage meat around this chap and they'd be in with a real chance I'm sure.
Main of Telmara (East Anglia somewhere apparently) duck was pink and delicious, as you might expect, served with soft cherries and interesting bitter white turnips. What really caught my attention though was a fancy gourmet sausage roll, powerfully herby with a dainty light pastry casing. A very successful mix of flavours and textures.
A pre-dessert, another refugee from the tasting menu I think, was a blueberry and custard thingy with a topping of lime mousse. It was full of brilliant summer flavours, and although I perhaps could have done with a little more of a lime hit from the mousse, it still disappeared in happy seconds.
The cheese waiter at Windows explained that they had been "trying something different" with the cheese selection recently and had asked their supplier, La Fromagerie, for a slightly more experimental range. At first, in my blindly patriotic way, I was disappointed to learn they had just one non-French option, but they certainly all did look very interesting, and I barely recognised any of them which is always quite exciting. In fact they were all so new to me that I can tell you the name of just one - the blue Fourme d'Ambert at the bottom there - which was reliably creamy and gently salty. The star of the plate, though, was the one to its right, which I promise I will reveal once my investigations are complete. It was an extraordinary product, the only way I can describe it is that it was like eating a cowshed, powerfully natural and unpasteurised.
EDIT: I even got the Fourme d'Ambert wrong. The full list of cheeses, beginning with the blue and going clockwise are:
Tomme de Savoie
Pave de l'aveyron
I had been invited to Windows to try what they call the "Menu du Chef", which at £39 for three courses is pretty good value considering the location, the view, the service (so famously good they made a TV show out of it) and the quality of the food. And though I know nothing about wine and have long given up trying to say anything perceptive about it, our sommelier charmingly and carefully talked us through some really delicious wine pairings - I particularly liked the Pinot Noir that came with the duck, although I always seem to like Pinot Noir anyway. It was a genuinely lovely evening, not a foot wrong put by anyone front or back of house, a delight from start to finish.
So, life goes on. It speaks volumes about the character of this city that on Wednesday morning, the day after the main period of troubles, the headlines were just as much dominated by the extraordinary residential cleanup operations organised over Twitter, and the spontaneous outpouring of community spirit as demonstrated by the Peckham Peace Wall as by securicam shots of hooded rioters and burned out buildings. If it takes a gang of disaffected troublemakers to shake our faith in the inherent decency of humankind then there are enough heartfelt campaigns like Keep Aaron Cutting and Help Siva to remind us all that actually, there are far, far more good people out there than bad. It's been a difficult week, but as I say, hard times often only bring out the best in decent, compassionate and civilised people. And I'm willing to bet that the true character of this city wasn't hiding under a hoodie on Tuesday night stealing trainers, it was up early the next morning with a broom along with thousands of others, ready to put things right again.
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I was invited to review Galvin @ Windows