"Why can't I come with you?" asked one of my three teenagers. I was midway through packing a weekend bag, had a plane to catch, and I didn't have the time to construct as lengthy and as detailed a response as I think was perhaps expected. My destination was London, more precisely The Square, a long-established and highly regarded restaurant in Mayfair. Chef and co-owner Philip Howard has been here since the early 1990s, and has picked up a number of significant awards during that time; he has longevity, reputation and the trophy cabinet to match. "If I can't come this time, what about next time?" came the hopeful follow up. The committed football fanatic suddenly had an interest in dining out, big time, in London, it seemed.
"We'll see", I replied.
As I am sure most parents know, "we'll see" is a tried and trusted technique for dealing with demanding requests, one which is interpreted completely differently by the two parties involved. To the parent it means no, but it is a deferred no; the expectation is that in many cases the topic of discussion will never resurface. It is most useful in answer to requests for extravagant purchases, such as "will you buy me a trumpet?". To the child, however, it may have many different meanings, but none of them are no. It means maybe, probably, possibly or maybe even yes, absolutely. They amble away, content with their victory. Tomorrow they will have forgotten about the trumpet, and their heart's new desire will be a drum kit. And the cycle starts again.
This was my inaugural visit to The Square and arriving later that day I was first struck by the cavernous nature of the dining space; this is not a small or intimate dining room. With its high ceilings and pale, brightly-lit walls, it would make a good car showroom. Jack Barclay, London's longest-established Bentley dealership, and go-to venue for all your Bugatti needs (well, this is Mayfair), clearly agrees; he uses the opposite corner of the same building for that very purpose. Putting thoughts of my next car aside for the time being, we were seated in the far corner of the showroom. Sorry, dining room.
The evening began with a selection of hors d'oeuvres, including black squid ink crackers dabbed with taramasalata, which were striking in appearance but less so in flavour, although a couple of cheese gougères were delicious, and little delicately crispy cones filled with a foie gras mousse were another step up. While popping these into my mouth I decided to check out the wine list, turning first to the Loire. What I found was a disappointing Wine Spectator list; by this I mean it was heavy on just a small handful of famous "break through" domaines such as Château de la Roche aux Moines (i.e. Nicolas Joly, a brave choice for any sommelier I think - just how much oxidation and botrytis influence do most punters want in their Savennières?), Domaine des Baumard and Didier Dagueneau. Beyond that, there were I think just six wines from this extensive region. Having since revisited the list online, however, it has been heavily revised since my visit, bringing in a broader range of domaines including François Pinon, some good names in Sancerre including Alphonse Mellot and Gérard Boulay, as well as wines from "Domaine Haut" (their typo, not mine). This is clearly a change for the better, and Loire lovers need not fear a visit to The Square.
There is one treat not to be missed in the Loire section of the list; my eyes lit up when they settled on the 2008 Montlouis Le Volagré from Stéphane Cossais. Having shown much promise, and having turned out some stunning wines, Stéphane died tragically young in 2009. Many years later his wines can still be found on the market, still at bargain prices. I ordered the Montlouis, to the stunned surprise of the sommelier. He asked me to repeat my request, and I wondered if my pronunciation was off (unlikely, I have been to Montlouis enough times to be able to pronounce it). Or perhaps he thought I had a particularly bad pronunciation of Montrachet. Or, just possibly, maybe it was just the first time during his career somebody had bought something from the Loire section. Order eventually placed, the wine arrived. And it was stunning, every last drop of it. Thank you, Stéphane.
After a rather simple amuse bouche of petit pois and beans over a mint jelly, I began with a lasagne of Dorset crab with a cappuccino of shellfish and Champagne foam something of a signature dish and as a choice a foregone conclusion. This was just superb, a stack of gently cooked and moist white crab meat, with mere slivers of pasta between (do I really need to deconstruct a lasagne?), with a superb two-toned écume, part shellfish and part Champagne, the flavour afforded by the former the real star of the dish, and worthy of being licked from the bowl (I managed to resist, but if I had given in to my desire obviously I would have slipped out of view beneath the tablecloth for this - I do have standards you know). The only spoiler in this dish was the presence of some crab shell in the lasagne, not unforgiveable but not desirable either. Alongside this dish, a soft boiled black headed gull egg with lovage purée, coastal herbs, Lincolnshire smoked eel and seaweed was inspired in its combination of marine and coastal ingredients, with eel presumably from the Lincolnshire fens. The firm and gently smoked flesh of the eel was the real star of the dish, the rest mere scenery, and it came with a delicately thin yet creamy-savoury sauce, much less richly flavoured than the shellfish cappuccino, but mirroring the flavours in the dish quite nicely.
On the whole these starters were at least very good, in the case of the crab dish exceptional, but one infuriating aspect of these dishes was the cutlery provided to eat them, two silver French saucier spoons. Created by chef René Lasserre in the 1950s to accompany sauced fish; the spoon has no bowl, but is instead completely flat with a thin edge; this allows the 'spoon' to be placed down completely flush with the plate, and the thin sauce which runs freely onto it can then be lifted up. So you would think such a weapon would be ideal with our starters, no? Sadly not, as both starters were served in deep bowls, making the saucier useless, and nothing more than a vaguely ridiculous high-end affectation with no consideration given to the actual dining experience.
When it came to my main course this was, unhappily, much less successful than my starter; to understand why it is necessary to rewind a little to when I ordered my dish. Having asked for more detail on the slow roast Berkshire pig's head with creamed potato, spring cabbage, turnips, apple, bacon and "1000" flower honey, the waiter graciously explained that the head is slow cooked overnight, and "a little meat from under the jaw" is taken and served with some vegetables. I also enquired about the presence of honey in the dish - was it significant enough to influence perception of sweetness, and how would it sit with the wine I had chosen? I was reassured that it was a minor component of the dish. So, slow roast pig's head it was for me, then. Much of what later arrived before me was as described, although the portion of meat suggested this must have been a very small pig, and it was totally dwarfed by the two large ingots of pork fat, glistening with a white sheen, the larger of which was about eight times the size of the meat in terms of volume. It was pretty clear that the pork fat was the star of the dish here. Inadequately rendered to my taste (and believe me, I am a fan of well-prepared fat), I ultimately found it quite inedible. More disappointing was the fact it hadn't even been mentioned in the waiter's description. Alongside I also had a little taste of the roast fillet of monkfish with a potato and oak smoked ham galette, spring peas, grelot onions, lettuce and new season's mousserons. This was an unremarkable dish, although it still eclipsed the disappointment of the pig's head.
Feeling fairly disheartened I decided to eschew dessert in favour of a coffee instead. This had been an evening of highs and lows, and I had really expected rather more of the former, and certainly less of the latter. The Square's generally excellent reputation didn't make me think those expectations were unrealistic. As we left, an entourage of staff lined up, perhaps thinking we needed some guidance towards the exit. It was a little like being clapped off at the end of a football match. "We look forward to your return visit", murmured the head waiter.
"We'll see", I replied.
Prices: The bill for two people, including drinks, came to £303.19. This included two three-course menus at £90 apiece, totalling £180. I was charged the full amount despite opting out of dessert. The Stéphane Cossais Montlouis Volagré 2008 was £75. Two coffees were £10, mineral water £4.50. A 12.5% service charge of £33.69 was added to the bill. (17/8/14)