I have fond memories of Simpson’s in the Strand, although not, it must be said, of its famous roast beef, which erred on the grey, institutional side of British cooking, its gravy as thick as the fug of cigar smoke that wreathed the room’s venerable chandeliers. No, it was the silver tankards of foaming ale that I remember most fondly, and the steak-and-kidney pudding, a dish that makes a virtue of long-cooked greyness.
The restaurant is famous for its imposing architecture, its status as the home of British chess (chequerboard tiles are a clue) and for its eminent patrons – Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens and Winston Churchill were regulars – but a couple of years ago its future looked in doubt: rumours swirled that The Savoy hotel, which owns the site, might allow the beef-laden trolleys to go the way of all flesh.
Happily, Simpson’s reopened this year after a smart refit by interior designer Robert Angell, the man behind the look of many of London’s high-end bars and dining rooms, including the Collins Room at The Berkeley and The Savoy’s American Bar. Angell’s task was to brighten up the fusty old Grand Cigar Divan while preserving its Grade II-listed interior: the booths and chandeliers have remained, but clever lighting has made the room seem brighter and more spacious. The ornate plasterwork ceiling, once besmirched by cigar fumes, has been painted in what Angell describes as a “distressed, tea-stained colour”: a dazzling white would have been almost sacrilegious.
And the food? The kitchen is now the fiefdom of chef William Hemming, whose menu (sorry, “bill of fare”: Simpson’s remains staunchly British) pulls off more or less the same trick as Angell managed with the decor: many of the traditional dishes are still present and correct (including steak-and-kidney pudding), but there is a lighter, more modern touch evident too.
Potted shrimps are a tad fridge-cold, but pleasingly mace-spiked, while an “English summer garden salad”, featuring soft-cooked quail’s eggs, charred pea pods, sweetcorn and tomatoes, has the kind of fresh crunch that previous Simpson’s chefs boiled into submission.
And the beef: still on a trolley, still carved at the table, but otherwise unrecognisable. Lavish, rosy slices of rib cover the plate, with duck fat-roasted potatoes, roast carrots, a suitably punchy horseradish sauce and splendidly rich gravy on the side. And, naturally, billowing Yorkshire puddings, crisp on the outside and spongy within.
Even puddings are notably non-nursery in style, untrammelled by suet: goat’s curd with poached apricots, London honey and fresh almonds, for instance, or an Eton “tidy” mess with (unsmashed) meringue, vanilla-spiked cream and Norfolk strawberries.
“Tidy”, incidentally, is a Welsh term of approbation, variously meaning something beautiful, accomplished or commendable: as an adjective to describe the new incarnation of Simpson’s, it could hardly be bettered.