Joseph Connolly reviews this double-starred Mayfair haunt
I eat out a lot – maybe rather more often than is good for me – but I really have come to see restaurants as London’s most highly civilising influence. There is nothing so fine as a morning’s honest toil (Protestant work ethic) with the prospect of a damned good lunch, enticingly looming. God knows how many restaurants there are in this city of ours – but you could easily dine out in a couple of different ones every single day for, oh … the rest of your life, easily. But of course we all have our favourites; the select and honoured few to which we always will most happily return.
A favourite, of course, does not necessarily mean the very best. There are so many disparate factors to successfully dining out: the food, service and company are paramount, of course – but often we will stay loyal to a restaurant simply because we can always depend on it for more of the same. Like a pair of softly worn-in slippers, or an amatory Golden Labrador. Restaurants become regulars for any number of reasons: a club, maybe, where you have to make no formal arrangements to meet anyone, but are confident that in the bar and subsequently at table there will always be someone you enjoy spending time with (and if there isn’t, then you are a member of quite the wrong club). Or, say, if the restaurant is truly local: you can’t be bothered to cook tonight, so why not amble round the corner to that trusty little Italian where you know they’ll be pleased to see you, the food will be decent, and the bill won’t make you cry?
Or maybe it’s handy for work. Or it’s a place you stumbled upon years ago. So why go to the trouble of uprooting yourself and finding somewhere glitteringly new and different? A genuinely warm welcome, your usual table, and occasional glass of something on the house can go a very long way indeed.
Mayfair boasts an extraordinary array of really good and prestigious restaurants – many of which one would be proud to elevate to the status of a regular haunt, were there but time enough (and money). There are bargain lunch deals to be had at the very best of them – the most famous of these being Le Gavroche … but the trouble is, it’s the very devil to bag a table. The Square in Bruton Street is another – just off Bond Street, and situated opposite such very swish shops as Holland & Holland, Kenzo, Stella McCartney and (whisper it) Brioni.
Just as Michel Roux does still cook at Le Gavroche, so it is with Philip Howard at The Square. Often referred to as ‘the chef’s chef’, Phil has form: a stint at Marco Pierre White’s Harvey’s (an almost inevitable rite of passage for the seriously aspiring chef) followed by a time at Bibendum, under the great Simon Hopkinson. But it is at The Square that Phil has truly made his mark. He is and has been Head Chef since he opened the place in 1991, and continues to hold the two Michelin stars he was awarded just six years later: a very considerable achievement. He is also co-proprietor of The Ledbury in West London – also two stars, and rightly reckoned to be one of the finest restaurants in Europe.
The Square isn’t, and never has been, a glamorous or romantic room. There clings to it something of the 1980s Business Class Lounge, set as it is in the ground floor of a stark and unprepossessing office block. The floor is polished parquet, the ceiling and walls bright white and stuck with recessed spots, all this alleviated by some wholly uncompromising abstract art and – when I was last there – vast vases of Dame Edna’s very best red gladioli. The really best thing is the generosity of not just the circular tables themselves, but the ample space between them. You could talk of the most intimate things here and never be overheard: this news will come as a severe disappointment to the serial restaurant eavesdropper.
The tables of course have proper white napery, the fine and thin crystal stemware gleaming like diamonds. Room temperature slabs of both salted and unsalted butter, very good bread, and service that is truly exemplary; among the best in London. The menu comes in the form of a large cream hardback volume bearing Philip Howard’s name boldly blind-stamped on its cover, accompanied by a hazy illustration of what I first took to be a champagne cork, but I then saw was actually a nobbly mushroom. There are several ways to go here for lunch: the set deal (£32.50 for two courses, a fiver more for three) or else the two course a la carte at £65, with a third course coming in at a rather whopping £25 extra. There is also a nine course tasting menu at £115, should you be feeling adventurous, hungry and rich.
My guest and I went for the set lunch. There are only two choices per course, but these have been carefully considered and there is always something you want to eat. I had a salad of game sausage, figs, cépes and truffled ricotta, while my guest was going for hand-cut campanelle (a sort of pasta) with a vinaigrette of sardines and wilted fennel and lemon. This was much appreciated: “that sardine… it’s like lobster: the most wonderful flavours.” And just that comment rather deftly struck The Square’s particular nail very firmly on the head. The seasoning, depth and intensity of flavours conjured up here are always rather amazing, demanding the savouring of every mouthful.
My salad was fine and lively, the sausage excellent, and the figs just ripe enough. And before all that… an amuse bouche: a trio of delectable tidbits, the star of which was a red mullet croquette.
One inevitable downside of Michelin-starred restaurants is the price of wine – though wholly understandable, money must be generated. The list is vast, the sommelier most attentive. I spotted a 2001 Romanee-Conti at £6,950, but eventually we settled for a rather more modest Cotes du Rhone at £50 (sounds cheap now, doesn’t it?). My guest was having fillet of sea bream and semolina gnocchi, caramelised celeriac puree, artichoke and thyme. The ensuing silence, punctuated by the occasional and deeply appreciative murmur, was comment enough. This was presented in what looked like a white upturned mini Stetson… while my risotto of shin and brisket of Whitepark beef with chanterelles and butternut came prettily strewn on a gunmetal plate, with a hint of stardust. I must now confess to not being bowled over by this dish. Although the flavour was there, there was very little actual rice, and one does wonder why a virtue is being made of using the very cheapest cuts of beef: I must say I have dined here a great deal better than this.
All was forgiven with the arrival of a blackberry soufflé: this pink and perfect vision was deftly incised by the waiter, and vanilla ice cream slipped into the gorgeousness of the thing: sublime – as a soufflé really has to be.
Joseph Connolly is the weekly restaurant reviewer for the Hampstead & Highgate Express and the author of twelve novels and twelve works of non-fiction, the latest of which is The A-Z of Eating Out (Thames & Hudson).