I posed the question “Bentley’s or Scott’s?” on Twitter and got a mixed response. Chris was adamant that Scott’s was the right option and others thought Bentley’s was a good choice. Rather liking the idea of having a Valentine’s Eve meal on Swallow Street, I went for Bentley’s.
With a bounce in our step Cowie and I sauntered past Gaucho, where we had enjoyed a clumsily, high handed meal some time ago, and into the romantic reception area at Bentley’s. The sound of the piano welcomed us in like the sirens who destroyed the lives of many ancient sailors. Beguiled by the slightly too loud piano and modern day Melpomene, we asked whether it was possible to have a glass of champagne at the bar before dinner. Given that we were early and that they stood to make more money out of us, we were shocked that we were denied. Apparently, tables needed turning! Rather taken aback I became more forceful changing the question to a statement of fact.
We enjoyed our champagne enormously – probably because it was illicit. Its peachy tones and almost creamy fizz restored our optimism and set the tone for the meal ahead.
Having finished our champagne we were led to an excellent table by our fabulous waiter (whose name I tried to remember but have forgotten). The dining room upstairs is well proportioned and decorated with padded fabric which takes all the aggression out of peoples’ voices and delivers a wonderful buzz. It allows you to hear your companion perfectly whilst hinting at the presence – the aural equivalent of spotlights. Paintings of various fish adorn the padding in a way that distinguishes this from an asylum.
Deciding what to eat was more tricky than normal. So to ease the task we ordered half a dozen Maldon natives and a bottle of Muscadet in what was to be an ongoing homage to my Grandfather.
I’ve had many good oysters in the last few years at Wrights, in Whitstable, at the Royal Well Tavern and in France but there is no doubt that these were the best I have ever eaten. Their flesh was textured almost like raw fillet of beef and their flavour was like someone had distilled the essence of the sea. The attention to detail was immaculate. The shells had been scrubbed to ensure no grit gets in the way of the textural nirvana. And they were shucked to perfection. A dash of shallot vinegar completed the perfect way to start our Valentine’s Eve.
Our minds were made up for us by our waiter. Cowie asked for his advice, and unusually, took it, by ordering a Singapore crab and mussel soup followed by steamed sole with langoustines and courgettes which I can remember seeing on Great British Menu. I went for the squid stuffed with chorizo followed by a Dover sole.
Cowie’s soup was full of freshness and vitality. But was shockingly almost empty of crab and mussels. A meagre three small mussel shells emerged from the half eaten bowl. And there was no physical trace of any crab at all. After such an incredible start with the oysters this was a major let down.
My baby squid stuffed with chorizo and feta came with a beautifully naughty butter, garlic and parsley sauce and brought a sizeable smile to my face. The stuffing was gorgeous. Full of flavour and colour. My only concern was the slightly chewy nature of the squid. At this level you expect silky softness and near zero resistance. It was a hint of what was to come.
The hit and miss saga continued with our main courses except in reverse. Cowie’s steamed sole fillets, arrived looking like an extra from London fashion week, with courgette strips giving the torpedo structural support. A scattering of langoustines finished the dish. It was light, sympathetically cooked, subtle and in short, masterful. I half expected to look up and see Cowie transformed into Jenny Bond!
My Grandfather is a huge fan of seafood and always orders Dover sole whenever he has the chance. I’ve inherited his love of what he describes as the Queen of fish and have a similar knee jerk reaction to it when I see it on a menu. Except that I normally can’t afford it! He always asks for it to be left on the bone and takes great pride in performing the laparotomy himself.
When my sole arrived I winced and sent it back saying that I had asked for it to be left on the bone. It arrived back moments later with the waiter pointing out, very politely, that I was either blind or an idiot. It was still on the bone. It lay lifeless on my large white plate, tinged with a buttery brown glow. For £33.50 it looked mean. As if the other half was still in the kitchen. My mood was darkened when I started operating. The flesh, which should have yielded, resisted. Rather than being moist and juicy parts of it were dry. I mumbled my way through it and checked I was right with Cowie that I hadn’t all of a sudden become useless.
I’ve had many great Dover sole experiences hanging onto my Grandfather’s coat-tails but this one was a grave disappointment and sullied the whole meal. When our waiter asked what we thought of our main courses I told him that the chef had overcooked the most expensive fish on the menu and I was very disappointed. He emerged 5 minutes later to tell me that chef hadn’t overcooked the fish! Well maybe he hadn’t and it had been the hot lamps on the pass that had ruined it. Either way, it was seriously below standard for one of London’s top fish restaurants.
Stumped by this we eschewed dessert and contemplated our meal over a coffee instead, remarking that their chocolate truffles were too cold! Looking around the restaurant we saw numerous empty tables which made us feel even more irritated that the maître d' had tried to force us to our table early.
On our ride back to Balham we tried to tease our experience apart. At £170 it was the most expensive meal we have indulged in together in London. And it most certainly wasn’t the best. It was littered with flaws that all were the result of a lack of attention to detail in just the same way that Gaucho had next door. Poor front of house, stingy starter for Cowie, overcooked sole/steak for my main course. Maybe this is a quirk of expensive West End restaurants. Or more specifically it is almost as if Richard Corrigan has taken his eye of Bentley’s whilst he is focussing on getting Corrigan’s off the ground. Surely if his attention had been on Bentley’s our experience would have been the highlight of the year we had been hoping for.
As it happens, our Valentine’s Day breakfast at Heston’s Little Chef the next morning more than made up for Bentley’s clumsiness. As Chris has pointed out since, I should have taken his advice!