When I wrote my last post about restaurants in Paris, I quickly realized that I’ve never done anything similar about the London restaurant scene and I live here full time. I sat down to pull together a list of places I enjoy eating, places interesting enough to tell a story about, places that make my taste buds swoon. I could scarcely come up with any. A friend who I mentioned this dilemma to suggested that because I live in London I don’t pay close attention to my dining experiences, taking them more for granted as a means for sustenance. At first I conceded her point, but then, whoa! When I lived in New York or even San Francisco I could come up with a long list of joints to fit a whole slew of occasions and moods. Sadly, I can hardly do the same in my new city.
So, I set out to try and find my London spots, haunts, meals I would crave and save for. I made plans for us to meet friends for Sunday lunch at the Hawksmoor Seven Dials. They have an impressive cookbook, reviews that rave they offer the best Sunday roast in all of the UK, they were named the best new restaurant in London last year, and offer a meat heavy menu that would suit a husband currently avoiding carbs (although difficult for me as I’m trying to lower my meat intake). Anyway, I was excited.
First of all, Sunday lunch is such a traditionally English thing to do. We always talked about having a lie in Sunday morning then a quick brush of the hair and down to the pub where we’d sit with friends and their dogs and read all the Sunday papers while we ate roast meat with the traditional accompaniments, nursing bloody marys as we went. It rarely (like twice in 2 years) happened. And, when you get right down to it, the traditional roast dinner is not terribly appealing to me as it usually features done to death meat, cooked so long they’re no longer nutritious vegetables, a deflated Yorkshire pudding, and all covered in gravy that often tastes like the granules it came from.
The Hawksmoor sounded very intriguing, but less because of the meat they are famous for and more for the lobster roll they serve. I adore lobster rolls – and yet am not a huge lobster fan (can that be?). I ate my way through Pearl Oyster Bar in New York and then moved on to Mary’s Fish Camp when the couple who cooked at Pearl together broke up and Mary opened up a bigger spot with shorter lines closer to my subway line. I would go as often as I could afford and sit at the counter and order the lobster roll with an Arnold Palmer to drink. The complementary packet of oyster crackers was my starter. Looking past the staff behind the counter, I’d watch the kitchen staff of 3 dance their culinary waltz, the final step being the scale on to which each lobster roll was carefully balanced to make sure it had just the right amount of lobster deliciousness. Salivating I’d hope this latest one was mine and watch it as it made its way from the kitchen.
I’m not 100% sure what their lobster roll recipe is because I never can get it quite the same, but I do know they serve it in a Pepperidge Farm hotdog bun that’s buttered and then quickly grilled so it’s just the slightest bit crunchy. The roll is then lined with a small amount of butter lettuce and then the lobster mixture has mayonnaise, celery, lemon juice, salt and pepper and that’s it! It’s all garnished with some chives and a mound of thin French fries seasoned with Old Bay. That’s all my friends, and it’s divine.
So, back to the Hawksmoor. It’s a very cool spot and by that I mean that I was constantly comparing it to my favorites in New York. Perhaps not a good start. We were led to our table downstairs and I was in awe of the large room in what used to be a brewery way back when (because everything here is ancient) complete with vaulted brick ceilings and iron columns. The staff were friendly and the crowd sort of bizarrely well-heeled and cheerful for a Sunday (obviously no one here had tied one on the night before). I enjoyed my spicy virgin mary, my husband a martini (because he had tied one on the night before), and all was right with the world. I ordered my lobster roll and waited.
When it arrived I suspected it wasn’t going to be alright. First of all, I was annoyed that at £25 I had to order French fries on the side to go along with it. When those came they were the overly thick “chips” that they seem to prefer over here. I don’t. The lobster meat itself was uneven. Some of it had been badly overcooked so it took on that nasty grainy texture. The meat was mixed with some mayonnaise but no celery or lemon to brighten it up. Instead they had poured hazelnut butter on top, which I concede would be delightful on the side of a lobster served whole, for dipping, let’s say. Here though, the butter just added another layer of unnecessary sweetness and richness to the mixture. Then, sacre bleu, they served a small ramekin of béarnaise sauce on the side! Why?? There was nothing crunchy (except for the stray piece of cartilage I found), no play on textures, temperatures, tastes. I was dismayed.
I don’t think I would have been quite as disappointed if I didn’t get the sense that they were trying to be very American steakhouse in their sensibilities. For god’s sake, they offer three different hotdogs on the menu along with shrimp cocktail, steaks and burgers of every shape and size. I would never suggest that someone has to offer me the meal I’m familiar with, but perhaps it would do them good to offer different versions like they do with the hotdogs. Perhaps an asian style lobster roll with chillies and thai basil in a lime dressing. Then the more traditional Maine style roll like the one I describe here. Finally, offer the Hawksmoor – the version I got for those who like their richness piled on richly.
For the record, lest you think me lobster-only obsessed, I was not the only dissatisfied diner in our party. My husband’s chili cheese dog was ok, but really just ok. One of our friends ordered a steak and it was overcooked, albeit the meat itself tasted really nice. The sides we ordered were unremarkable. All in all, if it wasn’t for the terrific service I would have been royally peeved to have paid so much for so little.
I give you here my take on the lobster roll of my dreams. It’s uncomplicated but delicious – and I suggest that if you’re having a budget-busting cocktail party any time soon, these are fabulous if you can find little mini hotdog buns to serve as finger food. Really good! Also, I’m going to play with the Asian style lobster roll I mention here and if it works I’ll post the recipe.
Mary’s Fish Camp Lobster Rolls (I think)
1 pound lobster meat
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup finely chopped celery
Juice of one lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
4 hot dog buns buttered inside
butter lettuce leaves
chives for garnish
Chop the lobster meat into bite size pieces and then combine with the mayo, celery, lemon juice and seasoning. Chill this until you serve.
Pry open the hotdog bun and place it inside down in a hot skillet. Cook until golden brown.
Line the buns with lettuce leaves and pile in the lobster meat. Garnish with chopped chives.