Bensoir! It's me, Benjamin. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You may have read stuff I've written elsewhere, but here on my own blog as Ben Viveur I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others, so pretty much anything goes.

BV is about enjoying real food and drink in the real world. I showcase recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. And as a critic I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended. Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Capital Breakfasts

You might remember, way, way back at the very dawn of the year, I enjoyed a rather fine breakfast at Duke's Brew and Que and resolved to seek out London's other great breakfasts to see if the Duke could be matched or perhaps even bested...

It went the way of most resolutions made at that time of year, obviously.

Yes, I know. I've let my readers down, I've let myself down, but most of all, I've let breakfast down.

It's the-most-important-meal-of-the-day, so it is, and I've done gone and let it down by utterly failing to stick to my pledge.

Well, until now that is.

Look, I'm not really a morning person. It's a lot of effort getting up and leaving the house before I've even properly woken up. It's hard enough on work days. And I don't even have an appetite until lunchtime usually.

But enough excuses. You've had to wait a long while, so, to celebrate Ben Viveur post No. 150,  here's a double review of the breakfast fayre from two of London's big meaty heavyweights: Simpson's in the Strand and the Hawksmoor Guildhall.

Can silly money buy the best breakfast in London or just the most expensive?

Which sin is deadliest?

Having dined at Simpson's in the past, I know the beef - both the signature roast and the Wellington - to be truly excellent.

It was a few years back but I also recall beautifully cooked Yorkshires, potatoes and veg, effortlessly stunning Bergerac, a sampling platter of rather delicious desserts, and some amazing vintage Port and Stilton to round off the meal.

So, my hopes were high that Simpson's would deliver a majestic Full English.

Even for breakfast, this place isn't cheap. The 'Ten Deadly Sins' with Champagne costs £77 for two people - a price at which you'd expect something a bit special. Maybe even a lot special.

We arrived at the crack of 9:45, towards the end of the breakfast service and were instantly ushered into the almost empty Grand Divan.

Barely five minutes had passed and our table had been serviced four times by three different people, all busying themselves around us in various ways, which did feel just a little intrusive at that hour (or indeed any hour, really).

No, it's not too early to be drinking champagne
It did mean that the Louis Roederer 'Theophile' champagne, orange juice and coffee arrived pretty much all at once though.

These distractions aside, it all started out rather well: The freshly squeezed juice was superb - just sweet enough, virgin-fresh with a taste of sunshine. The young, crisp champagne was also a delight, both on its own and when introduced to the OJ to fashion a lovely Bucks Fizz.

But things went downhill soon after.

The coffee was rich and roasty, but I really don't want that at the same time as my champagne, thank you very much. If I'd left it until after I'd eaten, it would've been stone cold.

Not only was the coffee served way, way too early in the proceedings, but so was the toast, and that is a needless mistake that borders on the unforgivable.

I declined the offer of cereal or grapefruit (though this would also have been included in the price) and chose a miniature croissant from the pastry basket. Again, this really should have come out after the hot course. It's common sense, right?!?

I've enjoyed a breakfast of champagne and croissants every Christmas morning since I was a child, but there was something just not quite right here as the croissant clashed violently with the champagne. Strange.

A plateful of underwhelm

When the main event arrived I tried hard not to look disappointed and give the place the benefit of the doubt until at least I'd tasted it, but that sinking feeling of having been ripped off had already set in.

Around the time that the toast reached Arctic temperatures
You get eggs (cooked however you like them), bacon, sausage, black pudding, liver, beans, bubble'n'squeak, tomato, mushrooms and fried bread - these ten items being the 'deadly sins', presumably, though I'd argue that serving coffee, pastries and toast at the wrong time are far bigger crimes against breakfast.

It didn't look that great on the plate, but, more importantly, it really didn't taste brilliant either.

My scrambled eggs were grey and watery, while the bacon (one rasher each of back and streaky) lacked oomph.

The sausage was reasonably meaty and flavoursome, though you only get one fairly stubby one, and the liver was just a tiny, floured piece of fried offally gristle. The black pudding was probably fairly good, but was woefully undercooked and not even half as crispy as I'd have liked.

So, more points lost and it's starting to turn into a bit of a disaster.

The tasteless tomato and knobby little mushrooms didn't add much either, and the biggest injection of flavour actually came from the Simpson's mustard which is a proper old fashioned Colonel of a condiment, and almost as good with a cooked breakfast as it is with roast beef.

Unless I was missing some subtleties somewhere, the beans were just beans and the fried bread was just fried bread, which is all perfectly fine on a breakfast plate but ain't going to win any awards.

In some ways the surprise package was the little ball of bubble'n'squeak which was light, crispy and fresh with a delicate potatoey taste. I'd have liked another one of those on the plate.

The best breakfast in London? In a word, no!
Overall, it's the sort of plateful I'd expect to be served at a three star seaside hotel while listening to a couple from the West Midlands arguing about a roof rack.

By the time we'd had as much as we cared to eat, our toast was barely edible - which we knew it would be because they served it half an hour before they should've - and the miniature jars of Wilson's preserves (another staple of hotel breakfasts) were never going to save it.

Lewis Caroll might have tried to believe six impossible things before breakfast, but I found it hard to comprehend just how disappointing this was.

Given Simpson's in the Strand's deserved reputation for fine dining, it's almost unfathomable how lacklustre their breakfast is, and baffling how the same place can serve such lovely orange juice and eminantly drinkable champagne on the same bill as the manky, chewy fried liver or the insipid, soggy eggs?

If there's room for three extra deadly sins then serving a substandard breakfast for over 75 quid should be one of them!

Not a hard act to follow

Hawksmoor pitches itself to a substantially similar market - upmarket, good quality, big emphasis on meat - but it's a bit younger, trendier and less formal than Simpson's, which isn't hard to do.

While their four restaurants are well known for some of the finest steaks known to man, only the Guildhall dining room, bang in the heart of the square mile, serves breakfast.

And not just any breakfast. Their self-professed aim is to serve the best breakfast in London, though a far less lofty ambition would be to do one better than Simpson's!

The Cornflake Hardshake
The eye-catcher on the menu is the 'Hawksmoor Breakfast for 2' which, at £35, seems to offer a lot of food, though there are plenty of smaller options available and you can have steak in the morning if you so choose.

There is something for everyone on the morning cocktail menu and we try a Cornflake Hardshake (£8) - a vanilla and cornflake milkshake with a generous slug of Bourbon.

It's sweet, creamy and delicious and would be a perfectly sound liquid breakfast in its own right.

Hawksmoor's freshly squeezed OJ (£4) is pleasant enough, but lacks the sunshiney Wow! factor of Simpson's. However, losing the Battle of Orange is unlikely to mean much in a breakfast war where the opposition have put up such a flaccid and feeble showing.

Look - it's enormous!

When the breakfast arrives, it's fucking huge. And I mean massive. They clear space in the centre of the table for it to arrive, resplendant, like a cruise liner pulling into port and dwarfing everything around it.

Exploring the big cast iron dish was an adventure in itself - our search party turned up two fried eggs, a thick smoked bacon chop, a pair of thick, herby sausages, several halves of tomato, flat mushrooms, loads of 'bubble and squeak' (which is nothing like what you'd expect) and a bone full of marrow.

Where the fuck do I start?!?
On the side you get a pot of trotter baked beans (they just look like normal beans but have a lovely, porky smokiness), a jug of tangy gravy - made with HP Brown Sauce, apparantly - and as much toast as you can eat. Given the sheer quantity of the rest of the stuff I can't see too many people going back for repeat toast prescriptions though.

Not only is there lots of it, but the quality is several notches higher than Simpson's.

The eggs were fine, but clearly they're not the main deal here, where the emphasis is very much on meat. I've never before had my breakfast bacon in the form of a huge chop, but once I got used to the idea of hacking bits off, it was eminently more satisfying than just a measly everyday rasher. 

Both establishments do quite well in the sausage department - as I'd expect - but Hawksmoor's are particularly good and also slightly longer, whilst still being firm and dense.

They are made with pork, beef and mutton and instinctively I'm suspicious of any sausage that isn't all-pork, but the variety of meats simply gave them an interesting texture and a more complex meaty flavour.

At the bottom of the dish was some buried treasure: Hawksmoor 'short rib bubble and squeak' appears to consist of leftover crispy roast potatoes, fried up in spices with very tender slow-cooked beef and the occasional bit of stewed greenery. Every moreish mouthful revealed bold new flavours and I would get up early every morning to eat this stuff on its own by the huge plateful!

The tomatoes were firm and not too watery and the mushrooms were buttery and meaty and everything you'd want them to be (who could possibly prefer horrible little button 'shrooms?)

I've never been a huge fan of either the minerally flavour or gelatinous texture of bone marrow, but it's an unusual addition to a breakfast and goes quite well with the light, rustic style white toast.

A dog's breakfast?
According to the menu, the breakfast is also meant to include black pudding - ours didn't contain any, and there was no explanation or apology, though there did seem to be a second, smaller, piece of bacon in addition to the massive hunk.

My only other slight criticism is that it took a fair old while for the food to arrive - probably a good half an hour or so, which might not be convenient for someone who has to be somewhere.

Mind you, at least they don't fill that half hour by serving inappropriately-timed toast!

There are standard condiments on every table - mustard, brown sauce and mainstream ketchup, plus their own home-made ketchup with tangy, tabascoey notes.

However, whereas on the Strand there was a clear need for condiments to impart a bit of zing, the Hawksmoor breakfast is such a minefield of flavour explosions that I could quite happily eat it all without reaching for anything other than the gravy.

So, how do the two compare?

Well, clearly, Hawksmoor wins hands down. The ref stopped it in the third round shortly after the toast.

If you're going to be spending this sort of money on breakfast, you're probably not the sort of person who would quibble over a few quid, but technically Simpson's is slightly cheaper.

(In that if you ordered the big Hawksmoor breakfast for two, along with two juices, two coffees, two glasses of champagne, and maybe a couple of pastries and some grapefruit or cereal, it would cost a bit more than the £77 you'd spend at Simpson's, but you'd probably feel less begrudging of it.)

More importantly, you don't really need anything else to eat, and for £35 I actually think this is reasonable value for a meal of such high quality.

I'd also venture that this just edges the Duke's breakfast (although that is considerably cheaper), and in so doing lays down a huge, meaty gauntlet to the potential competition.

If there is a better breakfast to be had in the capital, I think it'll take some finding.

Where to find it...

Breakfast @  Simpsons in the Strand
100 Strand
WC2R 0EW (map)

Breakfast is served Monday-Friday 7:15 to 10:30 AM

Breakfast @ Hawksmoor Guildhall
10 Basinghall Street, 
EC2V 5BQ (map)
Breakfast is served Monday-Friday 7 to 10 AM

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