Meat Vs Veg
I have been planning to visit Hawksmoor for most of the last year but lacked a suitable dining partner. So when my dad said he was in town for a combination of geneology and Woody Gutherie I co-opted him to my plans. To be honest, it didn’t take much arm twisting. We went to the newish Covent Garden branch, tucked away in a side street opposite Pineapple Dance Studios. It is a wonderful subterranean space, a former brewery (and apparently a store and stables for the old fruit market) that has been transformed into something between a gentlemen’s club and a speakeasy. It is manly but thankfully doesn’t smell of the City.
They recommend about 400g of meat per person and there website warms that their preferred cuts are big. They aren’t kidding. I’d planned on bone-in prime rib but those cuts proved too big and we settled for 800g of porterhouse to share instead. This came as half a dozen cuts of sirloin, a couple of fillet and the bone. With steak you need two things: chips and red wine. We both had things to do later so ignored the enticing selection of bottles and plumped for a cheap, decent carafe of Syrah. I then asked for both beef dripping and triple cooked chips but our waiter advised that one would be enough. The portion was small but it was indeed adequate so entirely meat focussed was the evening.
That didn’t stop us throwing a few other sides into the mix: bone marrow for me, two fried eggs for my dad and some steamed spinach as a token concession to our health (and wives). We bravely resisted sauce. I’ve been wanting to try bone marrow for a while but it quickly became apparent that whilst it clearly has its time and place – with some crusty bread and a handful of watercress, perhaps – it is entirely superfluous on a plate of meat. Spinach, on the other hand, proved vital.
£44 a head including excellent service from a waiter who could easily have been a bit too much of a wide boy but managed to judge the mateiness just right. It was indeed the best steak I’ve had. My only regret is that I didn’t have the nerve to ask to take the bone home for the stock pot. I do feel I need to return soon though, Hawksmoor strikes me a restaurant that benefits from familiarity. I’m also intrigued by their Hungarian dessert wines.
Saf is pretty much the opposite of Hawksmoor: “Saf uses no animal products, no dairy, and no refined or processed ingredients to create a fine dining experience unlike any other in the capital.” It is a light, calm oasis in the rush of Old Street (or it was at seven thirty when we sat down, as we were leaving it was as busy as the rest of Shoreditch). We started with cocktails from their enticing but possibly slightly over elaborate botanicals list. I chose wisely with a girl’s drink, Guilty Husband #2, that was essentially a punchy kir royale. N was less lucky with her man’s drink, an Old Smokey that clobbered you first with bourbon and then gin with little in the way of finesse. Not really a first drink.
To start, I had gnocchi putanesca. Perhaps this was a slightly conservative choice since it is one of the few dishes cooked at temperatures above 48 degrees Centigrade but it was also a wise choice. The fat lozenges of gnocchi were perfectly cooked – light, firm and the ideal delivery vector for the rich sauce – and whole dish was brought to life by a lemon gremolata. N went for agedashi tofu to my total lack of surprise since she is a noted tofu fiend. Agedashi is traditionally deep fried but in keeping with the ethos of the restaurant it was baked here, a submerged slab of it in a dark broth surrounded by floating greens. At first the broth was too strongly soy which buried the saki but the tofu had absorbed a huge amount of flavour, always tricky for such a stubbornly bland medium. The broth also improved with time and the asparagus and soya beans balanced some of its darkness.
Vegetarian food makes the selection of wine a bit confusing. We went with white but it wasn’t really robust enough for most of the dishes, particularly the mains. This could have had something to do with the Pinot Bianco we selected; on its own terms, it had a nice initial presence in the mouth but petered out to watery nothingness. It certainly couldn’t compete with N’s tower of lasagna. Or rather “lasagna” since it contains neither pasta or cheese sauce but rather is a series of layers of tomato, spinach, aubergine and mushrooms. It was beautifully presented, particularly the lattice of dried tomato perched on top, but this belied its heft. Without the pasta or sauce to modify the “bolognese” it was very full on, the intensity almost becoming bitter by the end. N actually said it was too much for her, not something you often hear. I had mushroom croquette which was, well, mushroomy. Okay, there was a dash of truffle cream but otherwise the dish was a single deep, earthy note of mushroom. Rather disappointing.
£45 a head including a couple of very chocolatey desserts but excluding service which necessitated a frantic rooting through pockets to cobble together a tip. It was a very nice meal but lacking a certain something. Well, let’s not be coy, the something it was missing was dairy; excepting my gnocchi, these dishes were sorely in need of some sauce. So on this occasion the win goes to meat.