William Sitwell has given up meat for Lent, but that doesn't stop him scoffing. He visits Racine for his final blow-out meaty meal, before taking some friends on a meat-free (well, sort of) tour of London's food scene.
It’s Lent and my daughter has announced that she’s giving up biscuits. I thought I should show some solidarity, so I’ve gone one better and have given up meat for 40 days.
So the first thing I did was book myself into Racine for a final meaty blowout. Racine serves better French food than you can get in France but as with all good Gallic restaurants, chef Henry Harris has very little time for vegetables. So, for example, if you see spinach on the menu, do not expect to be simply served with spinach — especially if you are a vegetarian. This is because Henry Harris serves his spinach with foie gras. He probably tosses it with cream for good measure.
The restaurant is in Knightsbridge and is very possibly one of the most comforting restaurant environments in the capital. You come in off the chill of the street and are greeted with a huge heavy curtain, which you part to enter a darkly lit room of banquettes, tables and chairs (ok, so having tables and chairs isn’t that original, but the chairs are comfy). The menu is a thing of beauty and I would happily eat everything on it.
Henry Harris has a simple philosophy which is to cook stuff he loves. So that’s what you get. My fish soup was the finest possible. Deeply rich, tasting as if the best bones and fishy bits have been left to marry for hours and hours in perfect harmony.
Next up was veal chop, from Limousin in South-West France. It came pink with a melting chunk of Roquefort butter oozing over it. The chips had loads of salt, as did the butter. I’ve never tasted such salty butter. And I’ve never tasted such good butter.
Along with the veal came that spinach. But while this was my final meaty curtain call I actually wimped out and asked them to remove the foie gras.
Vanilla ice cream came with Valrhona chocolate sauce. Having poured it over the ice cream I noticed it wasn’t hot so I gave the kitchen the opportunity to do the dish again.
We glugged red wine as we troughed, and left stuffed and happy. And the next morning I woke up keen as mustard about my veggie challenge ahead.
Breakfast was at Langan’s and an entertaining chin-wag with an old PR friend of mine. Quite why this ‘brasserie’ only recently starting serving breakfast escapes me. The room is perfect for it, light, airy, the walls covered with wonderful paintings. I suppose it’s a hangover from the days Peter Langan operated here…and as people may know, hangovers were doubtless the reason his establishment didn’t do breakfast.
I cycled off after my breaky happy to breathe in the cool but no longer freezing air until, at some traffic lights, it dawned on me.
I’d eaten bacon at breakfast. Whoops! Not a good start for that meat-free Lent.
A Foodie Tour
There was a busy day of eating ahead at which I could push-forward my meat free mantra. I was giving a foodie tour of London to some friends from Dubai.
This is what we achieved by 2.30pm: Visits to Waitrose, The Ginger Pig, La Fromagerie and the Natural Kitchen in Marylebone, then the Selfridge’s food hall, Fortnum and Mason (where we saw the brilliant new British Bakery and where we were treated to coffee, tea and cakes courtesy of that boy who bakes, Edd Kimber), the Mayfair kitchens of Caprice Holdings – including bellinis at Harry’s Bar (a moment we won’t forget in a hurry) and a sniff of the beef (a sniff, no nibble) and tour of the grill at 34, some bite-size cicchetti at Polpo (meat-free and thanks to one of London’s most ingenious restaurateurs, Russell Norman).
Then it was lunch at Granger & Co on Westbourne Grove, a nip into Ottolenghi and Daylesford before the finale of a chocolate tasting at Melt (the best chocolate shop in London).
Then having passed by Café Anglais for a drink to celebrate Lucy Boyd’s (daughter of Rose Gray) wonderful new book from Harper Collins, Kitchen Memories, it was on to dinner at Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley.
Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley
I’ve always had a soft spot for this place, having spent many hours filming here for a documentary on Michelin. It’s a wonderfully relaxing room – although with lots of hushed chatter – and plenty of frightfully complicated food, the sort that leaves me yearning for Polpo, a place that slavishly works to reduce ingredients from dishes.
But comparing the two is a tad foolish as they are on such different sides of the foodie spectrum, Polpo being about as far from a fat Michelin tyre as they would like to throw it.
There was dorset crab – gently curried, daintily arranged, delicate to taste, really wonderful. The halibut, which came on a bed of fregola (a Sardinian pasta), had such a sweet sauce I found it hard to eat and – were it not for my greedily, inquisitive companion – would have left far more on the plate.
Pudding was a treacly thing, the name of which escapes me. There was a small tube of sweet stuff coated in treacle and a spun sugar disc. Call me stupid, but I thought it was too sweet.
Overall, as I find with so many such restaurants, it was the things we didn’t order that I liked the most. Wonderful cheesey puff balls at the start, and the most amazingly soft piece of shortbread at the end. They’re the things I’ll remember. That and my grief at not being able to eat Marcus Wareing’s soft and tender Herdwick lamb reared on the lush and sodden, grassy slopes of Cumbria.
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