The links between art and food are pervasive. Still lives of fruit and kitchen scenes have been a well-known part of the tradition of painting for centuries, and, more recently, Damien Hirst, in both his bisected lambs and, more conventionally, in his Pharmacy restaurants, has drawn, at times, uncomfortable parallels between the two. Yet it is in the Tate’s restaurant, the Rex Whistler, that one of the most striking associations is made.
Named after the artist of the enormous mural that covers the room – ‘The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats’ – it has, justifiably, been one of London’s most popular dining rooms since it opened in 1927. Now, ninety years later, it is still managing to innovate, with a mixture of delicious food and a wine list that has been known to make grown adults regress to the giddy joys of children let loose in a sweet shop.
I went for lunch with my dear friend and noted oenophile Boothby, whose brother works at a very expensive, Michelin-starred restaurant. When Boothby informed his brother where he was lunching, he received a series of disbelieving texts, the gist of which were that some of the high end wines on the list, compiled by the estimable Hamish Anderson, were being sold for little more than retail price, and that his own restaurant was charging double for them.
Everyone in London should know about the Rex Whistler’s wine list. I heard a (presumably apocryphal) story that the excellence of the wines, and the comparatively low prices, was set in stone by the Tate’s founder, Sir Henry, who wished visitors to enjoy the same superb drinks that graced his table on a daily basis. Even if the story is more wishful thinking than fact, it still reflects the excitement that many feel when confronted with the comprehensive list.
If the food were no better than a school canteen, this would still be an unmissable destination. Thankfully, the cooking here, courtesy of chef Garrett Keown, is top notch. Starters of pumpkin soup with goat’s cheese and cured salmon make full use of seasonal British produce and convey the tastes and sensations of autumn admirably. We were equally impressed by a selection of mains that included fine hake, a delicious grouse and a wonderful beef dish that both satisfied and delighted; Keown is clearly someone who knows what he’s doing. At a price of £35.95 for three courses, this is something of a steal.
But enough teasing. You want to know about the wine. Trenchermen that Boothby and I are, we struck a balance between comprehensive quaffing and restraint; it was lunchtime, after all, and we wanted to see the excellent Queer British Art exhibition afterwards, without staggering or swaying. Nonetheless, we made a lightning foray into the list and were struck by the delights that we found. Two aperitifs of sparkling English wine, this time the Coates & Seely Brut, were the perfect start to the meal, and a half bottle of Pouilly Fume was a superb pairing for the salmon. You would be either a fool or an expert not to take the sommelier’s recommendations, and he came up trumps with a magnificent bottle of a very fine Bourgogne Pinot Noir, which retailed at a frankly giveaway price of £34.50. I’ve had inferior wines at twice the price.
Desserts of, essentially, souped-up tiramisu and pecan pie finished, it was time to depart, and it was two extremely happy men who wandered around the hallowed halls afterwards. The joy of the Rex Whistler is that, for a few short hours, one can escape into a haven where everything is right with the world. Here’s to another ninety years of the same.
For more information about Rex Whistler at the Tate, visit www.ate.org.uk.