Monday, 5 May 2014

Hawksmoor Air Street

 As regulars amongst my lovely readers will know, I am a firm fan of Hawksmoor: their truly excellent steaks, laid-back atmosphere, quirky cocktail list and, of course, their cornflake ice cream. But much as I do love a meltingly rare steak with the now ubiquitous triple-cooked chips and some fierce English mustard, I also have a passion for seafood. So, I headed off to Hawksmoor's Air Street restaurant to see if this really could be the best of both worlds.

You may think me unwise to choose a celebrated steak restaurant for a seafood feeding frenzy and normally you would be right; however, at Air Street the seafood is not just an add-on afterthought but is fully half of the menu. Hawksmoor's steak-by-weight options are still on the chalkboard, but carnivore favourites like the burgers have made way for turbot, monkfish and Dover sole. And in case you're wondering what experts in sourcing and cooking beef would know about fish, cue a man who does - award-winning chef, restaurateur and fishmonger Mitch Tonks, who not only offers an advisory hand but also sources their seafood straight from Brixham market in Devon.

The entrance is tucked Harry Potter-like into the chunky stone facade of the Piccadilly/Regent Street stretch of Air Street. Once inside, a curving staircase leads to a welcoming bar area (strewn with Sunday papers on our early evening visit) and an unexpectedly large Art Deco dining room, capable of seating over two hundred diners either in booths or at tables made from reclaimed school desks. (Remember those inky compass-point etchings in desktops? Well now they're cool, not cause for detention.) 

The room is undeniably stylish, with a gorgeous light above the staircase and wonderfully atmospheric stained glass windows between you and the heart of London, but has quite a low ceiling which makes for tricky acoustics and some background noise (don't worry though, it adds to the buzz and very young visitors are usually seated at one end of the room).

We decided to start with half a Dartmouth lobster - cooked in a specialist high-pressure steamer, we are told - and roast scallops with white port and garlic. Once the disturbingly surgical implements for lobster-mining had been carefully laid before us we turned to the wine list, which is varied and not exorbitantly priced; £40 will get you a choice of over thirty bottles of wine, including a Prosecco and three Hawksmoor recommended wines. We were pacing ourselves for the evening so decided to go for wine by the glass; a 2003 Muscadet with good depth and a bracingly crisp Picpoul de Pinet, one of my unsung summer favourites and an excellent choice by the glass or bottle as it goes with pretty much any fish or seafood.

Both starters were delicious; the lobster was sweet and moist with plenty of meat and the scallops were equally firm and flavoursome. A standard portion has three scallops but, as we were sharing both starters, our waitress offered to bump this up to four - presumably to prevent tears and a general falling-out. Our waitress, by the way, was excellent: knowledgeable, experienced, attentive but not intrusive, warm and friendly. 

One gentle word of warning; she was also one of the best up-sellers I have met, so if you are on a budget, do be careful - the relaxed atmosphere can lead you to accept those expert and friendly suggestions on sides, drinks and main course choices that together can really add to your bill (the possibly obvious but unmentioned fiver for the extra scallop, for example). In a restaurant of this quality even the cheapest wines will still be good, and you really don't have to go overboard with the sides; the mains are protein-heavy and very filling and hey, you can always order more if you need to.

So, back to the feast. For the main we plumped for the monkfish which was creamy, firm and delicious, grilled over charcoal in signature Hawksmoor fashion. In honour of spring finally having sprung, we teamed it with some Jersey Royal potatoes and a generous dish of spinach with lemon and garlic; perfection. I have no idea how my partner-in-crime managed to find room for sticky toffee pudding to follow, but all I could squeeze in was a single scoop of ice cream. I was prepared to settle for salted caramel or clotted cream (it's a burden I bear for you, dear reader) until, having casually mentioned to our waitress that I was disappointed not to see their signature cornflake ice cream on the menu, she managed to sneak me a scoop from the bar, where they use it to make the cornflake milkshakes (yes, really). 

The pudding was everything you would hope; comfortingly rich yet light and fluffy, served with ice cream. The cornflake ice cream was what it says on the tin; again I wondered, why didn't anybody think of this before? It's a genius combination.

If you had any doubts that the Hawksmoor guys would be able to reach the bar they set very high with their previous restaurants, then let me put your minds at ease. The only problem now is how I explain why I'm sending people to a steakhouse for some of the best fish in London. 

Yours, with another 'Hats off!' to Hawksmoor,

Girl About Town xx

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Saturday, 3 May 2014

Pick Me Up at Somerset House

Not sure what to do with yet another long weekend in London? You could do worse than a leisurely, sunny stroll to Somerset House where Pick Me Up, the UK's original graphic arts festival, is under way once more. A selection of exciting new talent from the world of graphic arts has been chosen to showcase their work alongside more established artists, but hurry - the show closes on 5th May.

Intentionally not your average art fair, the downstairs section is nevertheless slightly more familiar territory with sections on individual artists. Hate though I do to leave anyone out, there was way too much intriguing, original and downright cool work on display to mention even half of it - you'll just have to go and see for yourself. Meanwhile, some tantalising tasters . . .

French illustrator Thibaud Herem's incredibly precise and beautifully detailed drawings of London architecture; I particularly covet Liberty's.

Lynnie Zulu's bold and vibrant illustrations, injecting a tropical dash of colour:

Edward Cheverton's quirky and playful 3-D figures:

Isabel Greenberg's wonderfully evocative illustrations based on folklore, myth and storytelling:

Billy's Keith Haring-esque fun and sunny wooden sculptures:

Upstairs is a riot of collectives with interactive stalls and pop-up shops, t-shirts and furniture, prints and posters, cards and jewellery. Get involved!

I desperately wanted to visit the alternative photo booth, where instead of a boring old passport pic you could get a line drawing of yourself done by a mystery artist, but sadly the wait was too long. Never one to be deterred or downcast, I nabbed us a couple of seats at the cat mask collage table instead and got creative.

Oh, and did I mention that the works are for sale? The well-known artists can get pricy but I picked up one of the Isabel Greenberg prints for a measly £35. If you really can't make it, you can buy from the website, but do try to visit. It's fun, it's family-friendly and you can satisfy your shopping, arty and home decor cravings all in one hit.

Yours, with another fabulous London pick-me-up,

Girl About Town xx