Friday, 26 April 2019

Simpson's in the Strand, Covent Garden

A few weeks ago, during a surprisingly in-depth discussion about crab bisque (what do you mean you've never had an in-depth discussion about crab bisque), someone mentioned that famed Covent Garden seafood spot J Sheekey's had a version on the menu for a very reasonable £9. So one lunchtime soon after I found myself in the corner of the plush dining room, beneath a photo of Dame Judi Dench, tucking into a very accomplished bisque, involving huge chunks of crab in a rich, thick broth. With mounds of fresh baguette to mop up the dregs (which they offered to replenish twice), cosseted by service from surely one of the most practiced front of house in town, and ice water to drink, the entire bill, even including a £2.50 cover charge, came to £15.

And it got me thinking. How many restaurants in London do we dismiss as "expensive" or "special occasion only" where it's actually possible to sneak in for a single starter or a lunchtime special and leave with a bill of about the same size as a cinema ticket? How about settling into a booth at Bob Bob Ricard and having an Egg St Petersburg (£8.50)? Or a pea & mint soup in the shining surroundings of the Holborn Dining Room (£9)? Or even a hot dog and french fries (£7.50) in the ultra-lux Delaunay in Aldwych? The service, the surroundings and the nice soft towels in the toilets are the same whether you're spending £300 on caviar and draining the top end of the wine list or just having a bowl of soup, and why shouldn't they be? There's no minimum spend.

So I knew Simpson's was going to be expensive, that much I was prepared for. I had hatched a plan to share oysters as a starter, share a main and order chips to fill up on, which should give us a fair idea of the kind of thing Simpson's is about without having to take out a 2nd mortgage. It's a grand old dining room attached to the Savoy Hotel, and the markups were always going to be a bit punchy, but surely there's a way of negotiating a budget option?

Well, we tried. Admittedly we didn't try very hard with the oysters, as we decided to go for the natives (£30 for six, about as much as I've ever paid for oysters anywhere), but it was coming to the end of the season and I was worried this would be my last chance until next year so decided to push the boat out. They were nice big healthy specimens but rather disconcertingly room temperature as they'd been served on pebbles instead of ice. We survived this time, but ever since a distressing incident with a room temperature oyster a few years back which incapacitated me for 24h I've tended to be a bit wary if my seafood feels like it's been treated less than optimally.

They very kindly offered to split a single Beef Welllington portion (£42) into two, and I'm glad they did because I think eating twice this amount would have been quite tricky. The Wellington was great - perfectly medium rare inside and with a delicate surrounding of mushroom duxelle and thin, crisp pastry. A little potato fondant thing was fine if fairly ordinary, and some roast veg did the job. But one of the joys of having Beef Wellington is soaking the thing in sauce, and the peppercorn sauce here was pretty bad - bland and unsatisfying and tasting of little more than thickened cream.

Chips were good, though, as you might expect for £5 - triple-cooked to golden brown and crunchy, very much in the Hawksmoor style which if you've ever been there you'll know is a recommendation...

...and for dessert we fell back on the 'free' petits fours, chocolate mint things like a kind of reimagined After Eight. Which were very nice as well.

So, we'd shared a starter, shared a main and skipped dessert, so how on earth did the spend per head still manage to come to £73? A little matter of a ludicrously-priced wine list. If it's true that there's no minimum spend on the food (sort of - it was very nice of them to split the Wellington and they do a cauliflower soup for £11 if you want to play the Cheap Lunch In A Posh Restaurant game) then unfortunately the same can't be said of the booze, where the cheapest - that's the cheapest bottle on the entire list is £48. If even the Ledbury can start its list at £33, then there's no excuse for anywhere else trying it on - when a £16 glass of rosé fizz starts looking like the cheapest pairing with oysters, you know you're in trouble. I realise complaining about the price of booze in one of the most prestigious addresses in London is a bit pointless, but it really took the shine off what would have otherwise been a very enjoyable dinner. And there's just no need for it.

Otherwise, there's plenty to like about Simpson's in the Strand. Yes, it's a ludicrous throwback to a different time (including the clientele - we were the youngest people in there by about 20 years and I was born when John Lennon was still alive) and to take full advantage of every section of the menu would cost a small fortune, but that is, essentially, why people come to these places. To sit in a lovely room, be served by lovely staff, and eat your way through a menu that, despite the odd nod to modernity, hasn't really changed much in the last 100 years. And if that sounds like the kind of thing you'd enjoy, well then help yourself.


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