Lot 1 – lunch with two of the Arb’s most charming figures. What am I bid?
Larry and I have dined and lunched in some of London’s most interesting and unusual places in our time. An Italian with a giant car in it; a bar decorated by Gerald Scarfe; Westminster’s former public library with some of the city’s best Indian food; and, lest we forget, top-notch tapas and meat in a space concealed just beneath London Bridge’s railway arches. But we were going a step further for our first jaunt of the year, namely to the highly salubrious surroundings of New Bond Street, and specifically Bonhams auction house.
It comes as little surprise that auction houses have somewhere for their well-heeled patrons to snack while they seek respite from their substantial purchases, but few have bothered to have any sort of investment in fine dining, preferring overpriced salmon sandwiches and glasses of champagne. Things are rather different at Bonhams. Under the careful eye of Tom Kemble, an alumnus of Hedone in Chiswick, lunches (and set-price five-course dinners on Wednesdays and Thursdays) are designed to be set-piece events in their own right, with the restaurant duly awarded a Michelin star last year. But is it worth it?
Lot 2 – an opening salvo at the restaurant. Who’ll start me off?
I arrive in the minimalist and stylish restaurant on a Tuesday lunchtime. Larry, unavoidably delayed, suggests via the medium of text that I order for him, which I promptly do. The hiatus allows me to glance around the room at the other diners, mainly well-dressed men in their 40s and 50s, and also to look at some of the art on the walls, all of which is featured in forthcoming auctions. We are just beneath Dorothea Sharp’s early 20th century masterpiece ‘The Goose Girl’; a snip at an estimated £30,000 – £50,000. Munching my excellent sourdough bread and delicious canapés – the highlight being a sliver of foie gras topped with apple between a couple of wafers – I vowed not to make any sudden movements with my wine. It would not make me any new friends, I thought.
Lot 3 – a princely selection of fine wines. Who’ll join me in a glass?
Which brings us nicely to the wine list, which is stupendous. Wiser birds than me assure me that this is London’s best value list for the astonishingly well-chosen selection, put together by a mixture of MW and Bonhams’ head of wine department Richard Harvey, sommelier Charlotte Edgecombe and manager Rebecca Russell. Whether they’re correct or not, there’s no doubt that this offers a selection of vintages and styles that is only rivalled for good value by Hamish Anderson’s list at Tate Britain. Perhaps there’s some correlation between extremely good art and extremely good wine that we ought to investigate…
Lot 4 – a lunch companion arrives. What’s he worth?
‘Terribly sorry old chap’. Larry’s here, doing his best impersonation of a contrite gentleman, whereas for all I know he’s been wandering dizzily outside for the past 20 minutes and chortling. Nonetheless, his arrival heralds the arrival of the previously ordered starters, which sees us both plump for the poached juniper-smoked cod. It’s excellent, of course, and the presentation in an unusual sauce keeps us both on our toes guessing. But what’s even better is the half-litre carafe of delectable Pouilly-Fuissé that it comes served with, which is the perfect match to Kemble’s splendidly daring cooking. Larry and I exchange conspiratorial glances. This, we think, promises to be very good indeed.
Lot 5 – the plot thickens. Who’ll raise the bid?
The lunchtime menu is not a lengthy one, concentrating on a few well-chosen courses rather than some Biblical behemoth. Which means that two gentlemen such as ourselves are likely to gravitate towards the same courses. I eye up a delectable-sounding roast Kintoa pork chop, but Larry has already put in a request for it, so I satisfy myself with a duck breast and confit leg instead. If the cod was a fine curtain-raiser, this proves to be where the culinary bidding gets really exciting, as we good-naturedly (at least, I think it’s good-naturedly) jostle about who has taken the prize for the best-chosen dish. It’s possibly Larry by a nose, but the duck breast is superlative; cooked and served to perfection, it’s enough to send one quackers. (Apologies for that terrible pun.) There’s an Australian wine special on, so we plump for a carafe of the excellently named Wire Walker Pinot Noir, which puts us in a suitably bonhomie-laden humour. As the other diners begin to disappear into the afternoon, all seems right with the world.
Lot 6 – Going…Going…
All good things must come to an end, of course, so regretfully we once again have the same course (a very fine ginger poached Yorkshire rhubarb that comes in a sort of delicious custard, albeit one with lychee and pistachio rather than Bird’s), and prepare to head off into the afternoon, refreshed and certainly wiser. As we leave, Larry, habitué of many an auction house and gallery in his time, leans towards me with conspiratorial flair. ‘I’m going to return just for the wine list. Just you wait.’ Reader, he has the right idea. But rest assured, the food is of the highest standards as well. Just don’t do a David Dickinson impersonation, for heavens sake.
7 Haunch of Venison Yard, London W1. For more information, visit www.bonhams.com.