Hawksmoor Air St

‘Well’, I sighed to my housemate, ‘it looks like I’m about to drive a tank through any reputation I had as a frugal foodie blogger.  How do I write about going to Hawksmoor without sounding like a terrible person who burns £20 notes in front of beggars?’

‘But you are a terrible person’ he observed, unhelpfully.

‘Why would you call me terrible?’ I said, knowing he didn’t mean it, because otherwise he wouldn’t carry on living with me and making me coffee when I am hungover and bringing home ridiculous alien invasion movie DVDs for us to watch because he knows I like them.

‘Because I didn’t get to go’ he sniggered, and walked off.  He was right.

If you calibrate the terribleness or otherwise of a person by their tendency to spend money on dazzlingly expensive meals, I am still a beacon of purity and sweetness, since I am and always have been as broke as a politician’s promises.  By myself, I’ll occasionally stretch to £5 bibimbap or £10 soup noodles, in times of shortage when my Marmite-and-hummus sandwiches have failed to sustain me for the whole day.  And I am genuinely disgusted and distressed that we live in a country now where a man in his 30s may freeze to death on the street, and where you can have your state benefits cut by 25% if the government thinks you have a spare room, even if it is being lived in by your foster children or kept aside from your son or daughter when they return from military duty.  I hate that we give disabled people a starvation wage and force them to undergo humiliating and painful assessments designed to get them off benefits, and that these assessments are so flawed that of those found ‘fit to work’, a large number die in the week following the assessment and an even larger number win their appeal.  I hate that 83% of teachers say they have children in their classrooms who don’t get enough to eat, and that the pittance we give to asylum seekers to live on is handed out in smart cards that don’t allow them to buy sanitary pads, because dignity is somehow more than they should deserve.  I hate all that stuff.  but I do like Jones, and Jones likes me, and we both like steak, and cocktails, and half a lobster served with a little pitcher of clarified butter and a lemon slice and a few watercress leaves.  So.

‘Jones’, I said, ‘it’s been so long since I’ve seen you.  Shall we have dinner?  You could come round here for haggis, or we could go out’

‘I’ve been meaning to try Hawksmoor Air Street’ he said, ‘Would that suit?’

Hawksmoor and I have a happy history.  A friend took us all to Seven Dials for their soft opening, and it was then that i first experienced how steak could be, when done right.  We went back after my PhD viva, and had been waiting for the excuse to return.  For my dear My Jones and I, a hard day’s barristing (on his part) and thesis corrections (on mine) furnished the excuse.  Also, it’s not a lie to say haggis is damnably hard to find here.

Jones and I first bonded over a shared love of sushi, arguing and drinking too much.  His suits are from Ede and Ravenscroft and his accent from Surrey, and he studied at Peterhouse (where else?) before making the trip down to the Bar.  His brain, mathematical, logical and keen on the right order of things, is a pleasant if disorienting place to visit.  Like me, he refuses to take very much seriously (apart from good food and good tailoring, in his case, and correct word usage and social justice, in mine).  He pronounces the word ‘poem’ as ‘poyim’, like his sensible Glaswegian mother does, and knows more about wine than anyone else I know.  I adore him, for his good taste and his ability to pay attention only to things he finds pleasing.

Hawksmoor Air Street is up a staircase that sweeps dark and cool around its curves, with marbled tiles throwing you back already to an elegant kind of cocktail age.  The cocktail menu itself is separated out into chattily-described categories of drinks to wake you up, clear your head, lull you into dinner and settle your digestion.  The servers are friendly on a bubbly, personal level which makes you feel fleetingly that they really do like you, even though they don’t know you.  Jones was waiting for me in the shadow of one of the fine semicircular art deco windows.  The low lighting made it difficult at first to locate him, but a waitress came to fetch me and steered me over to where he sat, with an empty martini glass trailing recdurrants in front of him and another, fizzing and pale yellow, waiting in my place.

‘You should put your glasses on, and then you could see me’  I chided.  ‘Is this for me?’

‘I could see you, I just didn’t get up to fetch you.  I sent that woman instead.  (pause) I think she works here.  She was remarkably biddable if not.  It’s a Silver Bullet.  Try it, and the look at the cocktail menu and you’ll see why I chose it for you’.

I sipped.  It was – not fenugreeky? Aniseed, that was it.  Fennely aniseed with overtones of cumin, mixed with a bright lemon and gin flavour.  ‘Aniseedy’ I said.  ‘Do you want some?’ I looked in the cocktail menu. ‘Prince Philip’s favourite cocktail’, it said.  Well, I do like bright lemony gin things, and Jones knows that, so the Prince Philip business must have been mere garnish for a man who loves reminding me of my republicanism, for fun. ‘Prince Philip, it says?’ He nodded and laughed.  ‘Well, I suppose neither of us were born in the UK, and we’re both prone to being rude in public,  Cheers!  Oh, but your glass is empty.  Would you like some of this?’

‘I had some’ he said.  ‘I’ve already asked for a glass of champagne.  If it was nice I would have drunk more of it.  How have you been?’

‘Oh, not bad’ I said.  ‘I stayed up late to watch the Oscars, but it turns out you need a television for that’.  He cocked his eyebrow at me, puzzled.  ‘An Oscar is a kind of gold statuette’, I explained, ‘which is given out to people in the film industry when they’ve done something particularly well’.

‘Oh.  Yes, wait, I know two things about the Oscars.  One is that George Clooney was photographed wearing some very bad trousers.  And someone was very sexist.  Am I thinking of the same thing?’

I nodded and sipped.  ‘How are you?  How has your day been?’

‘Very busy.  Unfortunately, we seem to have reached the point where people are ringing up and saying, ‘we’ve paid you all this money to do things, now when are you going to do them?’  I’ve suggested that we start operating our office in another dimension from Monday to Friday, so none of our clients can find us.  We could go in on Monday morning, take on some work, pull a lever and go off on adventures and then return on Friday and go home, and nobody could come and bother us. Shall we go to our table?’.  As I followed him, he frowned and added under his breath.  ‘Really quite dreadful trousers’.

The Air Street dining room is on the first floor, above what must be several shops along Piccadilly.  The ceiling is low and the fittings are redolent of the hipper kind of gentleman’s club, if there is such a thing: green leather, brass lampshades, subdued champagne wallpaper, all of it just a shade too bright to be funereal and creating, instead, the impression of solid and unpretentious comfort.  Despite the low ceiling, the area covered by the dining room as well as the marvellous windows prevent it from feeling stuffy or confined.   In this, as in everything they do, Hawksmoor is neither overwrought nor underdone, but just quietly gets it right.  Really right.  Even the music, loud enough to be bracing, but not enough to intrude on conversations, was a punchy blend of punk classics.  Rebel posh boy Joe Strummer shouted a requiem for irony as the £400 bottles of wine were ferried back and forth.   You may have chosen the conditions of production for your music, white man in Hammersmith palais, I thought, but you have no say in the circumstances of its enjoyment.

At our table, by another semi-circular window, we ordered half a lobster and some dressed crab, and asked for our pre-ordered porterhouse to follow.  I recalled the first time I’d been taken out to a fine restaurant by a young man, oh! a few years ago.  It was Quaglino’s.  Given free reign of the menu, I ordered a whole crab there, in the lee of that glittering staircase.  They had brought it intact, which I considered a swizz.  Not that I didn’t know how to undo a crab and suck its tender insides out – I had a coastal upbringing, and played house with fishboxes and lobster pots –  but surely the point of ordering a crab in a fancy restaurant was that some other bugger would do the hard work for you?  I noted that the menu at Air Street also offered ‘pearl barley and root vegetables’ for its no-doubt-rare vegetarians, either available as a starter for £9 or a main course for £13.50.  In other words, the same food I make for myself at home, for pennies, when I can’t be bothered thinking about cooking.

A half bottle of gravelly Chablis came first (Jones praised it as very fine, but said it was unlike any Chablis he could name) and was followed by our half lobster with watercress and a jug of clarified butter, as well as the delicate white tendrils of crab on a tiny raft of toast, daubed underneath with mayonnaise.  The lobster was one fleshy apostrophe, a thick curl of delicate meat to plunge into and follow by the cracking and coaxing and sucking of the legs.  Despite the dental-looking implements given to us, Mr Jones could not extract the meat from the skinny legs and I sucked it out gleefully, demolishing the smooth brown and white fragments of crab and then turning to summon a waiter and ask for a finger bowl.  Before I could ask for one, a waiter turned up bearing two.  Now that’s service: when you find yourself saying, ‘Thank you, that’s just what I was about to ask for!’

Air Street is a new kind of venture for Hawksmoor, in that it serves seafood where the other (wildly successful) Hawksmoor branches confine themselves to steak and , here and there, breakfasts.  On previous visits, I’ve rolled gently over a cliff of greed into feeling overstuffed, (albeit with the pleasant sensation of being stuffed with the nicest food for miles around), but being able to have a comparatively light starter of shellfish seems to have done the trick.  I did not feel overfull at any point, merely hungover the next day, for which I will blame Jones.  (It is only the latest in a long line of Jones-provoked hangovers, and by those standards, relatively mild: there was one occasion when I felt so wretched on the way back from his house that I got off the bus as it crossed Hackney Marshes and walked up along the river Lea til I could find a friendly-looking tree, under which I stretched out and, rolling up my jacket to use as a pillow and had a little sleep for an hour or so before continuing on.  Drinking with Jones is not to be taken lightly).  In addition, their ethos of ‘find good produce/meat/fish and leave well alone’ works beautifully when applied to fish as well as cows.

Our porterhouse followed on swiftly.  I had envisioned it as huge, enormous, a sheet of black beef, but it was a sensible sized cast iron dish of beautiful meat, charred brown and cut into jewel-red chunks.  We also ordered chips, because what is a steak without chips, and buttered greens, because you should have a vegetable of some kind, and peppercorn sauce and bearnaise, and macaroni cheese because Hawksmoor does the best macaroni cheese of anywhere.  But for the first mouthful I just forked out a chunk of immensely tender, firm sweet meat, looked at it sitting on my plate and then put it into my mouth.  And oh. Oh, oh.

Hawksmoor people know about beef.  They say on the reverse of their menu that the key is to have good meat from good animals and do very little to it and if that is their formula, truly it works.  The beef makes every other kind of beef pick up its hooves and go home.  It is so dry-in-a-good-way (no squelchy chewy wetness here) and so soft (no leather toughness either).  The velvety meat has a depth and subtlety of flavour that cannot be rivalled by any mushroom or venison.  It is all there: charred crust, brown cooked chew, pink and melting inside as tender as a newborn calfie.   I just chewed, rolled back in my chair and raised my eyes to heaven and chewed, and let the meat dissolve in my mouth.

Wine began to dissolve my restraint.  ‘I didn’t realise how much I’d missed you’ I said.  ‘I’m glad you’re getting on so well at your new job’ I said.  ‘Do you think we should get a salted caramel Rolo each, or some to share?’ I said.  The chilled dark chocolates that came with our coffee and oozed tangy caramel bore as much resemblance to Rolos as Jones does to Joe Strummer – the same approximate colouration, but differently shaped and with crisp dark chocolate that cracked pleasingly in your teeth, oozing out deep, almost burnt caramel.  I accompanied mine with a tot of Angostura rum from Trinidad, and Jones sampled an Armagnac.  We followed these up with coffees, and took our time in leaving.  At Piccadilly Circus Jones and I headed for different tube lines, and back to our different little corners of reality.

Yesterday someone passed some cheap opera tickets on to me, though, and I asked him if he wanted to come with me.  Perhaps we’ll go for another interesting dinner then, and I can remove all doubt of my being a terrible person.

Published in: on March 25, 2013 at 11:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

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