The Great British. One of those words is accurate.
I had high hopes. I’d heard that there had been a good review in the Indy and I’d gone to have a look on my way to Le Pain Quotidien, the one in North Audley Street, a hop skip and a jump from my office. Not that I would be doing any of those movements at 8am. Or ever, in fact.
I was meeting the lovely J for breakfast at Le PQ and I took a quick peek at the menu outside the Great British as I was early. I had menu envy. It looked promising and enticing, with all the usual suspects – full English, Kedgeree, kippers – you know the drill. But I had already arranged the PQ gig so I couldn’t change it at the last minute. And so, the very next day, when my partner B suggested the mediocre and mildy depressing Fino’s, on North Row, I suggested this instead.
You would walk straight past it unless you knew.
A tacky sign outside and a very small frontage, but inside it looked different and interesting. It looked like it had been there for some time. It looked all lovely and wood-panelled. Dark and atmospheric. Old fashioned. Like the Quality Chop House. A bit. Not enough.The serving staff wearing white linen aprons. Formal but not. Quirky, narrow long rooms. An original fireplace. Uncomfortable seats . Black and white photos of 80’s pop stars above the panelling, in lit frames. It really wasn’t tacky, though I grant you, my description could lead you to think otherwise. It felt like something from the 50’s. And I am a sucker for a bit of post-war austerity chic.
We were meeting a mutual acquaintance, in fact an old school-mate. B is a stickler for punctuality and I could feel the anxiety radiating off her, as the allotted time came and went. We’d said 12.30. He thought it was 1pm. No matter. We ordered drinks and bread and settled in for the wait.
It’s one of those places that’s a bit uncompromising. B likes Diet Coke. she can’t help it. They don’t have it. Fentiman’s lemonade was offered instead. She didn’t like it, but I did, so that was manageable. But it has that slightly English, slightly left field sort of feel, which either works really well or it can just be a bit irritating, if not done properly.
It wasn’t the best start but B was in an unusually forgiving mood. Good and crusty bread came whilst we were waiting. Warm. With a side of fresh pale taramasalata and some butter, which B thought was on the turn and I wasn’t sure. Sometimes artisan butter can have that tang. Or maybe it was actually just past its sell-by date.
Because there had been the misunderstanding over the time, we decided to forego the starters. Straight to main course. We’d spotted some good-looking fish chips and mushy peas coming out of the kitchen so obviously I didn’t order that as it would have been too obvious and I wanted to try something less straightforward. It was that sort of day.
I decided to go for a cheese and onion pudding, with burnt leeks and chanterelles. It looked really pretty. The chanterelles and leeks were nicely done. The pudding was inedible. The exterior was claggy and soggy. The interior was thick and the onions shredded and lost in a lump of melted cheese. Gooey and unyielding, I gave up. I left three-quarters of it on my plate. Not a word. Not even your obligatory was everything OK? Certainly not a was anything wrong with the dish?. It’s me for god’s sake. It has to be pretty bad for me to actually leave it. Even if it’s mediocre I will eat it. I’ve paid for it and it is food and it would be rude not to. But they didn’t ask, so I didn’t say.
I snaffled a bit of the fried fish from my neighbour, together with the odd chip. Perfectly cooked fish and reasonable chips. Mushy peas not quite up to northern standards, but acceptable and good fresh tartare sauce on the side.
Because we really needed, we decided to share a dessert. I was eyeing the sticky toffee but B insisted on trifle. It was a Monday after all. And the trifle was really good. Christmassy. It felt right to be eating it in March with the weather outside at -1 and sleeting, in what passes for a Spring day in London.
And my favourite part of the meal was the bag of sweets which came with the bill. You couldn’t fail to smile at a rhubarb and custard and it almost made up for the main course disaster. But not quite. I’d go again, for breakfast and I might even risk lunch. There are so few places of character in Mayfair that I want this to succeed and to thrive. On this showing however and with only two other tables occupied, I’m not holding my breath.