Never mind fine dining, when Stirling goes out with Mrs Stirling, they do it in style; they do ‘grand dining’…
The strand is always busy early evening, the heaving throng of commuters and tourists heading in every direction except yours adds an element of challenge to your journey. Move and counter move, a wiley game, a gambit is needed to get you ahead of the pack.
Stepping out of that fast flowing river of close pressed human energy into Simpson’s on the Strand is like docking into the harbour after a storm. A great relief. The cool, smart (recently refurbished) interior is an oasis of quiet calm. Chequered floor titles and wainscotting walls. Pictures that hint at the history of the restaurant draw the curious eye. The deductive individual will start to draw conclusions. The dining room is grand, in a late Victorian style. High ornate ceilings and something deep and comforting about its appearance. Browns and reds and greens sit alongside each other without competing. Simpson’s might be wearing its new togs after the refurbishment, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s washed away its history or opted to become a neon upstart.
Unless you sprint to your table without a single glance at the walls, floor and entrance it will be impossible for you to ignore the subtle and not subtle references to the game of chess. The 1850’s saw Grandmasters and lesser players gather here and pit themselves against each other while enjoying the English fare, many considered Simpson’s to be the principal location for chess within Great Britain during that time. So influential (both with food and chess) that the restaurant is repeatedly called upon in fiction to add it’s own flavour to very English stories. Sherlock Holmes dined here with Watson on occasion, (spoiler alert) as did Cpl. Miller, played by David Niven. As he bids a sad farewell to a wounded and dying comrade in arms in The Guns of Navarone he promises him a roast beef dinner at Simpson’s. Even the mater of suspense Hitchcock couldn’t resist setting a scene here in his London based Thriller ‘Sabotage’.
Nestled in a comfy booth along the West wall, green leather and dark wood cocoon us, the menu offers a difficult choice. FOMO is brooding, it all looks very good, bordering on excellent. My opening move – Wild wood pigeon, with toasted seeds, pumpkin, onion and a lovely red wine reduction. My opponent chooses Simpson’s potted Shrimp with mace butter & mixed herb salad. It is creamy, delicious, and paired with a fragrant, balanced 2016 Maximin Grünhauser Monopol Riesling. My wood pigeon is pink, just the right side of gamey and oh so tasty. The toasted seeds and red wine reduction are a flavour bomb. A glass of ‘Little Beauty’, a 2016 Pinot Nior from former Cloudy Bay winemaker Eveline Fraser, is a fine paring.
Taking a moment to appreciate the surrounds you notice, busily weaving an elegant path between staff, guests and tables, are the famous trollies. Beneath those antique, shiny domes awaits a fine cut of either roast beef or roast lamb. And as if on cue, said trolley arrives and slice after slice of Daphne’s Welsh lamb is served. Potato gratin, English fine beans and mint gravy somehow find some space on the plate as well. I steel a mouthful – Pink, tender, full of flavour and when combined with the potato gratin, English fine beans and mint gravy a potential checkmate choice. The words “Bloody amazing”, emanate from the other side of the table between lamb and the 2009 Lopez de Haro Rioja.
Luckily I’d prepared for this and went for what was going to be my brilliant middlegame move: Buccleuch Estate 28 day dry-aged Beef Wellington with English bobby beans, potato fondant, confit shallot & peppercorn sauce. It’s been said I can cook a mean Beef Wellington, but my amateur attempts paled against this pastry wrapped masterpiece. The two medallions combine fine red meat and the golden pasty exterior so very well any thoughts of the lamb quickly fade. Sipping the 2014 Avignonese Vino Nobile Di Montepulciano with its hints of cherry and finish that keeps your palate excited (another delicious pairing) I take a moment to look around. The clientele is eclectic, although certainly not eccentric, the atmosphere is lively without being raucous and other than my faux pas of wearing brown brogues I managed to behave myself.
We both let that good behaviour slip with dessert. There seemed very little point having a ‘bit of fruit’ to polish off the meal. Sticky toffee date pudding, butterscotch sauce, burnt orange ice cream, a brandy snap and good measure of Taylor’s 20-Year-Old Tawny Port on the other side of the board and for my end game: Set vanilla custard, Caramelised puff pastry, honey poached pear & Williamine sorbet, Klein Constantia Vin De Constance 2013. Oh yes. That lovely sweet, sticky, lingering menage of flavours. I might concede defeat, but I do so willingly and in the knowledge I’ve done my very best at this table tonight.
The floors, the walls, the booths, the food and the service – it speaks of a history in a modern city, heritage in a world of passing trends and depth of character where pop-ups are here today and gone tomorrow. A respected friend, a reliable comrade and a darn fine restaurant to enjoy dinner. Add it all together and you get a bigger experience, a Gestalt, greater than the sum of its parts. We walked out of Simpson’s in the Strand onto a quieter street with broad smiles, replete in our dining and the excited expectation of returning. Checkmate.
Simpson’s in the Strand, 100 Strand, London, WC2R 0EW. For more information, including reservations, details of the beverage collection and bill of fare, visit www.simpsonsinthestrand.co.uk.