the UK Restaurant and Hotel Zine
When London's city fathers built the County Hall as the seat of government for the then London County Council it was a time of great confidence. Looking at the refurbished building today, you cannot imagine any council having the nerve to lavish so much money on such a grandiose project. It was certainly built to last. Margaret Thatcher may have dismantled the Greater London Council in 1985, but the building still faces up to the Houses of Parliament on the opposite side of the river, asking the question why no elected authority to coordinate the running of one of world's greatest cities?
The choicest part of the vast site is now being operated as the London Marriott Hotel at the County Hall for the brewing and leisure giant Whitbread plc. A distinguished kitchen brigade has been assembled under executive head chef David Thomas. The head chef of the County Hall Restaurant is David Ali whose brilliant cooking we reviewed when he was at the now closed in Chelsea Harbour.
Would too many chefs spoil the broth, we wondered, as we settled ourselves down at a comfortable table with a breathtaking view of the river looking across to the brilliantly lit Embankment House and the Savoy?
This question was answered more or less immediately as we kicked off with the soup, a dish so often overlooked by restaurant critics who feel they ought to be more audacious in their choices. The Velouté of corn with crab and ginger ravioli was like a very posh chowder, ultra smooth without being at all mealy. The crab was fresh and insistent while the ginger added piquancy without overpowering. Full marks. After that I succumbed to the seafood bar and ate a half dozen oysters which put me in an extremely good mood. My guest enjoyed a rather clever warm onion tart all wrapped up in vine leaves and decorated with a coarse tapenade of green olives with tarragon vinegar dressing.
I'd have liked to have tried the jellied rabbit with prunes and hazelnuts, or the spiced veal rump with girolles, rocket and parmesan, but one has to limit one's intake. People often ask me how I manage to do this job and appear relatively slim; I put it down to my tailor. I expect you will have noticed the juxtaposition of the words appear and relatively.
Watching the waistline then, I continued with a classic of hotel cuisine, the sole meunière. Actually, the menu offers the choice between grilled or meunière. The fish was fresh and firm and there was a supposed modern twist in the use of grapefruit instead of lemon with the meunière butter. It's a dish that the dowager novelist Barbara Cartland has every week at Claridge's (he moaned in ecstacy as her fork eased the firm but tender flesh from its voluptuous couch of pureed parsnip etc etc)
My altogether more prosaic (and sensible) guest had an impressive round fillet of beef with a pea flan, an inventive touch we thought. He asked for it well done, a good test of obedience on the part of the kitchen. Could they bring themselves to ruin a perfectly good piece of beef, I wondered? They could and did, and it served the blighter right. I'll have to cure him of these unsophisticated foibles.
For pudding he had a banana tatin which tasted rich and caramelised but looked a little too confected and pristine - tatins should have more spontaneity about them. I had a lemon rice pudding with a tomato sorbet and basil sauce. I like the idea of cross dressing, with vegetables masquerading and camping it up in puddings. Even the rice was more of a risotto than a pudding, but sadly, the basil sauce was a bit of a let down, for a start it was pink and I expected it to be green! Perhaps that was meant to be all part of the fun.
In spite of such playfulness, I got the feeling that the high octane potential of Ali, Corrigan et al was being held in check. Let the lads have their head Mr Marriott, I felt like saying. Then I wondered if I'd really been quite fair. After all, we did choose just about the squarest, safest items on the menu.
For instance, I could have had the roast bass with grilled asparagus and an artichoke and tomato fondue, or sweetbreads haricots blancs, saffron and chorizo. And how did we miss out on little oriental subleties like roast rump of lamb, spiced aubergine and cumin yoghurt, or confit duck leg with cardamom rice black beans and spring onions? No, there's something for everyone here, from the hotel guest who doesn't dare risk a thing because of his desperately important breakfast meeting early next morning, to the sybarite who wants to knock back a few oysters and langoustines before tucking into his rare fillet of beef.
There are some nice wines at quite reasonable prices. Look out for the wine that Alain Brumont has crafted from that very rare grape Gros Manseng into a characterful Cotes de Gascogne (£12.75). The Zind-Humbrecht Gewurztraminer £29.50 is simply breathtaking and Brumont's gutsy Merlot at £13.50 is a bargain price for a quality red wine in such a restaurant.
The Hayward Gallery of modern art, (virtually next door), has loaned some very fine paintings. Jack Knox's 1979 canvas Oysters in a Basket is a real delight, almost edible, certainly very tactile. I wish they'd rehang it near to the seafood bar instead of letting it languish in a dark corner in the hotel lobby.
It's still very early days at County Hall. The waiting staff are charming and finding their feet; when they have a little more confidence and knowledge of both the food and the wine list (there is no sommelier, many will be relieved to hear) they will do the place proud. In such a situation and with so much talent in the kitchen the place has got to be a success. It's bound to be popular with MPs - New Labour will love the frisson of cavorting in such a recent stronghold of the so-called "looney left". The supreme irony is that Ken Livingstone, the GLC's very last supremo, has turned into a part-time restaurant critic. You can read him in ES Magazine, given away free with Friday's Evening Standard. We've since heard that Ken is a regular at the restaurant, plotting his return in the newly created post of Mayor of London, perhaps?
The County Hall Restaurant, County Hall, London SE1
Tel: 020 7902 8000 Open all day every day.
Two course lunch £16.50
A la carte starters £5.00 - £9.00, main dishes £11.50 - £19.00, puddings £5.00
If you happen to be interested in the wines Clifford Mould mentioned, you should address your enquiries to Anthony Byrne Fine Wines, Ramsey Business Park, Stocking Fen Road, Ramsey, Cambridgeshire PE17 1UR. Tel: 01487 814962
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