In Bob Hughes’ Rome there’s a long and entertaining riff about the early and medieval Catholic Church’s obsession with relics: Saints’ heads, vials of blood, pieces of the “true” cross, and so on. It’s a good passage, breezy, erudite, and rescued at the last minute from becoming a mere set-piece poking fun at mackerel-snappers by the Jesuit-educated Hughes’ concluding point that “no moment in history is free from superstition”. Recall, he notes, the hysteria with which Sotheby’s bidders some years ago competed to snap up old golf clubs and drinks trays that once belonged to “America’s Holy Family”, the Kennedys.
Wandering around London underlines the point, even if the history and heroes commemorated are a lot more worthwhile than that Hyannisport clan the Prick once memorably heard described as “the Milats with money”. The C. of E. may have been born of the Reformation (and the little matter of Henry’s need for a divorce) but its hometown is a living museum, a semi-secular reliquary of British history. Visit the Churchill War Rooms –an absolutely worthwhile way to spend a few hours and a blast for fans of the great man – and you’ll see what I mean. There’s a good shelf or two of books on Churchill already at Stately Prick Manor (and a good couple of more on the war in Europe to boot) but it’s still a thrill to visit the sunless warrens in which he walked and talked and prosecuted and with the help of Roosevelt, that old bastard Stalin, and several million allied troops won the war.
Likewise St Paul’s Cathedral, which besides being a stunning church in its own right (the thing was built in the 17th century, and having climbed the 500-plus steps to the top of the 85-metre-high dome, one can only wonder HOW!?) is where one can pay respects to countless secular saints of British history, from Nelson to the heroes of the Battle of Britain and beyond.
But from the sacred to the profane the big draw for the day was a visit to the Ledbury in Notting Hill: When we Pricks set our sights on London several months ago a table here was top priority and as reservations opened up for our week we banged our refresh buttons like a pair of coke-addled monkeys in an addiction experiment. When the only thing we could get was a table at the ridiculously middle-brow hour of 6:45pm on a Monday no less we happily set it in stone. The Ledbury is consistently ranked right up at the top of the London fine dining tree with two Michelin stars, a comfortable spot on the top-50 lists, and the fact that head chef Brett Graham got his start in Newcastle, NSW, of all places only added to the draw card.
With that sort of build-up disappointment can easily beckon. Not this time. Even the bread, gossamer-light bacon rolls, defied both gravity and expectations. A first look at the tasting menu almost has us go a la carte, which is ridiculous in retrospect. Too many veggie-heavy courses at the front end we worry, before getting over our carnivorous selves. Smart move: A sort of tomato salad comes with a crostillant of goats cheese and is an education. Anyone who thinks the difference between knowledge and wisdom is simply that “knowledge knows tomatoes are a fruit, wisdom knows not to put them in the fruit salad” should try this dish. That’s only the beginning of what you know about tomatoes. Seriously.
Green beans with peaches and shaved foie gras are next and work a treat, the foie not overpowering but rather melting into the dish and on the tongue in all sorts of sexy and silky ways that should not be pursued any further on a family site.
Other dishes follow: A little dish with garnishes is placed in front of each of us, truffle toasts appear on bed of pine needles, and a dipping broth of grilled onion consommé – all deep and rich and warm, it Is like eating a Bach cello suite – is poured. A large, really large diver scallop, then the tenderest pork jowl imaginable, served on a hot rock and so soft that this noble creature must never have chewed a thing but rather spent its life resting its jaw and drinking from a straw. Venison, too, just a hint of game, and set off by a meaty, tannic Napa merlot.
Desserts come in a number of formats: A light meringue affair as a “pre”, and a chocolate number which threatens to be heavy is just right. Chocolate. And a brown sugar tart that feels just a little like the Novocastrian chef’s subtle ode to the humble Aussie slice.
It is a firm and fast rule of this site that when it comes to blogs one should never trust any review that is entirely good (“OMG words can’t describe how yummy it was!” just makes the Prick think the author should get a thesaurus and go back to school) or all bad (“shit meal shit service life ruined”). But in this case, we’ll make an exception: Not a foot was placed wrong on the night, and front-of-house run by Darren McHugh (who, it turns out, worked once upon a time with the crew that would become the much-loved Lochiel House) shows off an elegant, seamless, yet casual formality that respects the “kind of a big deal” nature of the food while understanding that there’s just no point if there’s not some fun involved. If pressed for any criticism, perhaps the pinot blanc that opened the batting might have been a touch too assertive for the first course, but the Prick hates even to point that out, given that the delightful, generous, and knowledgeable sommelier was crestfallen when we clapped our hands in glee and recognition at a particular bottle of Giant Steps chardonnay: “Oh, but I try never to give our guests something they’ve had before!”
And that’s the thing that sets this sort of dining apart from anything else: It’s food, it’s performance, it’s engagement. This is sophisticated, top-of-its-game cooking and restaurateuring that does not confuse molecular frippery for modernity, puts nothing but the best on the plate and only then with a good reason in mind, and understands that despite the commercial basis of the transaction, the business ain’t called hospitality for nothing.