I realise that, in January, it is traditional to forswear the pleasures of the table and – more particularly – the cellar, at least for a token few weeks, until the needle of the bathroom scales returns to somewhere near its normal position.
Well, forgive me, but this website is not called How To Lose It. I have no hot tips for restaurants specialising in organic alfalfa sprout salads. The closest the Gannet gets to wearing a gastronomic hair shirt is going for dinner at a steakhouse and ordering fish; which, I’m pleased to say, is much easier than it used to be, thanks to the new Hawksmoor. While its other three sites – in Spitalfields, Seven Dials and Guildhall – more or less stick to steak, the menu at its Air Street venue has been devised with Mitch Tonks, the chef/proprietor of Dartmouth’s excellent Seahorse restaurant.
Hawksmoor’s elegant dining room occupies the same space above Regent Street that gastronomes of a certain vintage will fondly remember as L’Odéon, Bruno Loubet’s trailblazing mid-1990s venture. You will need an iron will to bypass the bar: Hawksmoor is good at cocktails, and its Marmalade (a blend of gin, Campari, lemon juice, orange bitters and a certain bear’s beloved preserve) is my new favourite drink.
My dinner started with terrific soused herrings and equally fine, thickly cut, tar-scented smoked salmon. Pickled cockles could be described as nostalgically gritty; a punchy tartare sauce went very well with fried Queenie scallops; brown shrimps on toast were warmly spiced and suitably sweet.
Tonks’s hand is most obvious in the main courses: chargrilled monkfish and Dover sole, steamed lobster, “royal” (gilthead) bream baked en papillote and “shoulder” of turbot, a lightly gelatinous cut from the thickest part of an estimable creature. His philosophy – buy fresh-as-a-daisy fish from Brixham and don’t mess about with it – fits the Hawksmoor style admirably.
Diners blessed with a fast metabolism (or cursed by greed) should try the curiously named Swedish dish Jansson’s Temptation, a cream-soaked potato gratin traditionally flavoured with pickled sprats (Hawksmoor uses anchovies). It is a fine companion for turbot: add a shaved fennel and watercress salad for texture and colour, and maybe a glass or two of JM Gerin’s excellent condrieu, and your virtuous dinner is complete. Although the béarnaise is rather good, and the peanut-butter shortbread with salted-caramel ice cream… but then I shouldn’t be telling you this. Herr Jansson’s creation is temptation enough.