This is possibly the most challenging restaurant review that I have ever written and will ever write. Joining me for lunch was none other than the Patron Saint of Food Critics himself, Matthew Fort, who will undoubtedly read this review to see if the upstart he dined with can cut the Colman’s when it comes to critiquing restaurants. Just as the chefs on Great British Menu quiver in their aprons as their dishes are carried through to Saint Matthew for his epicurean blessing, I am trembling as I type, faced with the prospect of the legendary Food & Drink Editor of The Guardian and one of Britain’s most respected food writers casting his worldly eyes over this middling attempt at restaurant criticism.
I shall begin with a quote from the gospel according to Mr Fort on the subject of food reviewing: “I have a duty to the reader to report the experience in a fair and truthful way.” He also said that “a restaurant review shouldn’t be more than 850 words.” So there you go, the gauntlet is set; a fair and truthful review in no more than 850 words. I have already used 194 words and I haven’t even mentioned the venue yet. This isn’t going well.
Bentley’s is an historic restaurant that has been affectionately revived by Richard Corrigan. Its menu is fish-centric with an emphasis on high quality ingredients; Richard buys directly from the fishermen, none of the fish is farmed, and he insists on the very freshest of produce despite the higher costs involved. As he said to me in a recent interview, “Bentley’s is very much a pure, natural food environment.” The crab, for example, arrives whole and is picked apart by the chefs as opposed to the meat being supplied in vacuum-packed bags.
The dishes at Bentley’s are constructed to allow the outstanding ingredients to take centre stage. “I want to keep the chef’s ego out of that place,” Richard told me. This unadulterated approach was wholly apparent in the shellfish cocktail that is now the benchmark for all shellfish cocktails to follow. It arrived as a trophy of seafood, ocean fresh and piled high with tiger prawns, potted shrimps, lobster and crabmeat, a veritable celebration of the sea.
Darn, I’ve used 378 words already and I’ve only covered the starter, and only mine. Matthew chose a special of herring on toast which he reported to be superb, while Stirling sipped on velvety shellfish bisque and Larry delighted in a crab and mussel soup with a kick of chilli that brought a tear to his eye. If the chefs at Bentley’s were worried about cooking for journalists, about one of whom Marcus Wareing once remarked to me, “Matthew knows more about food than most chefs,” then their heightened adrenalin that day was already working wonders.
For mains I couldn’t resist the Royal Fish Pie consisting of lobster, scallops, haddock and tiger prawns, which is probably the best fish pie I’ve ever eaten and a pretty hefty portion too. I began to worry that I wouldn’t get through the entire dish, making a mockery of myself in front of a man known for his voracious appetite. “I only eat all my dishes on Great British Menu because it’s the polite thing to do,” was his excuse. Not that one needs an excuse to gorge on such fantastic grub. Quite frankly I’m appalled when fellow judge Oliver Peyton leaves his food only part-nibbled.
Fort and Stirling both tried the special of hake, a filleted slab so humungous they had to question the chef as to whether it was really hake (it was), while Lawrence plumped for the king of fish, a turbot, on a bed of sea herbs.
By the time it came to ordering desserts I thought I might do an Oliver Peyton and bail out halfway through the course, so I was pleased when it arrived in a small and manageable ramekin, “it” being a Tarakan chocolate pot, a dense, tangy delight with hints of cherry that made a wonderful end to this glorious feast.
A pertinent point was made during lunch about how food is not necessarily the primary ingredient when it comes to an enjoyable meal; that one might dine on very mediocre food but the atmosphere can make up for it and suddenly that rubbery steak with all the texture of a tractor tyre becomes in one’s memory the juiciest piece of beef known to man. Well on this occasion the experience was certainly memorable, but it was also accompanied by genuinely fantastic food and this completeness of a dining experience will be unforgettable.
To round off the meal, Lawrence and I sipped on a 20-year-old Armagnac. “Crickey, that’s good stuff!” he proclaimed. Matthew reached across, grabbed his glass, swirled it, sniffed it and rattled out an instant description of what makes it so good; a classic Fortism before our very eyes.
That’s 822 words including “that’s”. So in my last 28 words all I really need to tell you is: go there, you won’t regret it. And that’s the gospel.
Summary: a pure and natural food environment indeed, go there immediately.
Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill, 11-15 Swallow Street, London W1B 4DG. Tel. 020 7734 4756. Web: www.bentleys.org