March 24 2010
Sometimes only roast beef will hit the spot. On such occasions I make my pilgrimage to Simpson’s-in-the-Strand. Some erroneously believe it to be closed for restoration like its parent, the Savoy hotel, where Escoffier once served as chef. Not so. Simpson’s is as open as it has been for the past 182 years and gloriously resistant to the ebb and flow of history. The shades of Dickens, Gladstone and Disraeli would find it little changed here but for the admission of women.
Through the Grand Divan, London’s last great pre-Victorian dining room with its discreet banquettes and high gothic ceiling, limps Giuseppe pushing his chariot, as he has done for as long as I can recall, which is perhaps 30 years. The great silver dome rotates to reveal a magnificent roast rib of beef aged for 28 days. From it Giuseppe, grave beneath his toque, carves with the precision of a surgeon. Medium, medium rare, rare are delivered to a piping-hot plate on which already rests a Yorkshire pudding, light as the air of the Dales. This is best enjoyed Halifax-style, which is to say first dunked in the juices of the meat. Miraculously Giuseppe achieves this without a drop dripping astray. Finally the meat is anointed with a dollop of thick, fresh horseradish sauce.
Simpon’s master cook Gerry Rae also cooks game with a touch envied in St James’s clubland, and offers a Great British Breakfast with his Ten Deadly Sins for those unheeding of cholesterol. But somehow the beef eclipses all. Of course one can bookend it with Omelette Arnold Bennett (invented by the author while staying at the Savoy), then treacle sponge with Madagascar custard or Welsh rarebit. But it is entirely unnecessary, the beef with its accompaniments of roast potatoes and buttered cabbage being sufficient unto itself.
One tradition to be dispensed with is English coffee: an espresso will meet with Giuseppe’s entire approval. The whole affair need take no longer than an hour and, at £26.50, will cost half what one might pay at one of the few London restaurants still to offer roast beef on a daily basis. And I am sure I saw PG Wodehouse in a banquette on my last visit.