Soho has always throbbed with seduction. But I need a very substantial lure to work my way through its Saturday night blethering crowds and honking trikes. Of late, the opening of new and exciting restaurants has made the old gal more tempting. However, the real thrill is to be discovered when an old friend makes a change that is, without a doubt, for the better.
There are only two things one needs in life: a generous benefactor and a tame lawyer. Not necessary at the same time. I hadn’t seen my barrister friend J.D., QC since October 2010. We’d met at a swimming course run by the incredible Steven Shaw (purveyor of the Shaw Method Art of Swimming) at Champneys, Ashby-de-la-Zouche. We shared an immediate love of sneering at almost everything with which our forensic taste could pick fault. And, my gosh, there was a lot we picked at. I likened it to the habit office people have of popping the air pockets in bubble wrap. For some reason it’s pointlessly satisfying and interminable at the same time.
J.D., QC lives in Birmingham. I know! Why? He says they have law there. I say what for? He’d recently been dealing with some unpleasant personal litigation, and had hidden from the world for a while. I hadn’t noticed. “You need to be interesting for me to notice anything d’harling,” I told him. That’s when he announced he was coming to London and expected to dine with me.
He then used his barrister technique. He played me. “What’s London like now, B? I haven’t been there in so long. You are the expert in the minutiae.” And, like a crazed fool on a New Zealand bungie, I leap… “Yes, I am. I know all the best places.” His trap snapped shut on my delicate, doe-like ankle, “Saturday evening is perfect. Where shall we meet and at what time? Is there a chef who has the talent of Marcus Eaves who gave me two fantastic meals at L’Autre Pied before he got it a Michelin Star but, as then, not the recognition? I leave it to your impeccable judgment in such matters.” Shit!
J.D., QC is a sophisticate like myself, boasting a detailed knowledge of the finer things that make life bearable. My reputation was at stake. I needed to deliver reliability for quality, but with uplift. There is only one place – Quo Vadis. Jeremy Lee had taken up in the kitchen just a few weeks previously after 16 top-notch years at the Blueprint Café. What is he going to do with a Soho legend? Reliability with uplift. Yes. It will certainly be worth the effort of Saturday night Soho. I instructed my diary boy to make suitable arrangements in a false name. I don’t want to be bothered by fans.
“Thank you very much for booking Quo Vadis. It is an excellent choice. I have eaten there pre-Jeremy Lee, and the food (and particularly the service) were very good. It’s a lovely room too. I had a memorable meal at the Blueprint one summery evening so I am really looking forward to what he can deliver on a Saturday night in Soho.” Good job this was in an email, and J.D., QC couldn’t see my expression.
It was only then that I realised the dilemma into which I had stumbled through brash showing off. Who arrives first? It can’t be me; that just wouldn’t do. He should arrive first. It’s obvious. But then he won’t be able to find the reservation because it’s not in my name. Yet if I arrive first, my status will be diminished. I couldn’t possibly time my ‘arrival’ to coincide with his by waiting outside in the shadows. This is Soho. On a Saturday night. Sunset Strip is next door. What would people think?
Around Soho there are seven sculptural noses semi-hidden in plain view on various walls. It is said that if you spot all of them you will gain unimaginable wealth. That would be useful. Luckily for me, one of them is to the right of the entrance to Quo Vadis.
“Wait for me outside. I’ve something to show you.”
As my driver parks conveniently on the double yellows, I see J.D., QC looking around anxiously. It might only be 10 minutes, but it’s a battle won.
In a single move worthy of Martha Graham, I sweep inside while handing him my coat. “Weren’t you…didn’t you have something to show…” he stumbles. “You sort the coats. I’ll secure the table.” With J.D., QC thus distracted, I confirm my presence with the charming greeter who already knew who I was, er… am.
The table is large, the room is buzzing. Jeremy Lee occasionally comes through beaming a beatific smile. We smile back and turn to scrutinising the menu. It’s not a list menu, it’s a menu of boxes – choices reside within compartments, giving the clear direction to pick whatever you want. No enforced formality of starters, mains, etc. J.D., QC is excited. Jeremy Lee’s reputation makes everything seem clever and interesting and ready for a full-blown trial. AND we can order whatever we want.
What are you having? No, no, you go first. We’ll need a couple more minutes. Why don’t we order jointly and share. SHARE! Typical of the legal profession. Can’t get it right, so have a slice of somebody else’s. I explain carefully that I’m not who I am because of an inability to decide. I beckon the waiter.
Play and counter play we reveal our selections. J.D., QC again says we’ll share, perhaps in the hope that making a statement in front of a witness will make a difference. It won’t. I might have raised my voice. Perhaps we’ve gone too far. I look around at the other diners: all too interested in themselves and their food for us to have caused a scene.
Now for the wine. J.D., QC peruses the tight and perfectly formed wine book. With an easy-going casualness he ponders the reds and almost whispers, “But what were you thinking.” I sit up very straight and…“White Burgundy.” He slowly lowers the list and peers at me, “Chablis? Bourgogne? Montrachet?” Is he trying to catch me out?
We aren’t looking for multiple wines; we’re looking for something that will go nicely with everything we’ve ordered. This isn’t the sort of restaurant for a gastro-enduro test. This is a fun place where we shall enjoy skilled combinations of expertly cooked delicious food. I point to one wine in particular. “Really?” His eyebrows arch. We agree that it will be a test of what the sommelier thinks, as well as of my choice. But we will see what the sommelier suggests first.
The sommelier is quietly modest in his approach. Perhaps the waiter told him about the sharing battle on table R6. J.D., QC takes charge. He briskly lists what we’ve ordered, although the sommelier already knows. A too-brief pause – the barrister can’t stand the tension and blurts, “We’re thinking of having the Stellenbosch Journey’s End Chardonnay.” I fix him with a look reserved for TV executives with opinions. “Ah, but we’re interested to know what you think,” he, now half-heartedly, continues. The sommelier takes a short breath. The mouth goes up, the mouth goes down. The head nods to the left, the head nods to the right, and, finally, the pronouncement, “Yes. I think that will go very well.” I win, but it feels like a cheap win. The wine however is excellent and a near reasonable £37. It will, and does, go with everything we ordered.
His salt mallard with picked prunes and watercress arrives. Dark slivers with a thin margin of fat, seeping brooding prunes, and a nest of chlorophyllic green that you just know is going to deliver the peppery punch. He peers though his black frame D&G glasses, his face getting closer and closer to the plate and, like a veterinary surgeon performing a heart transplant on a hamster, he removes small samples for analysis. He grins. He chortles. “Oh this is good, very good. The fat isn’t really fatty at all but has retained all the flavour. It’s to do with the curing process. And the prunes add perfection balancing with a chewy sweetness. Very clever.” I wasn’t interested.
My smoked eel sandwich with bronchial clearing, but not eye-watering, creamed horseradish on toasted, biteable sourdough is delicious. I would have been satisfied by a double portion and 250ml of Tempranillo/Cab. Sauv at the bar. It’s a taste and texture that will have you obsessing with wanting to repeat the experience days, if not weeks, later. I shall never be able to walk down Dean Street again without needing to overcome the desire to just pop in for a quick bite.
J.D., QC looks at me with envy. The ‘sharing’ conversation reopens. I explain elegantly that should his hand stray over the centre fold of the tablecloth I will surely stab the back of it with my fork. Salsify with parmesan neutralises the tension. Two batons wrapped in feuille de brick, baked and scattered with parmesan gratings. One for each of us. Duel over – we both win.
My grilled mackerel is excellent. Oily, fishy, crispy skin – I can feel the omegas making me more intelligent by the forkful. J.D., QC’s brill is cooked to perfection allowing him to quote somebody famous who isn’t me, “The difference between good and excellent cooking is minutes. And this brill is better than that.”
We discuss the precision of Jeremy Lee’s kitchen, his excellence and discipline in combining just a few flavours to create an outstanding plate. We refer to McGee and Segnit, and take pleasure in the informed cleverness of us.
And so to dessert. An opportunity for sharing if ever there was. But by now I know his techniques. We agree to choose one each and one to share. J.D., QC betrays his minor public school pudding background with walnut meringue cake, while I opt for almond tart, caramelised pear and vanilla ice. Our concession to sharing was the Campari, pomegranate and blood orange sorbet. Rather like that funny, pointy, talking hat in Harry Potter, each dessert delivered exactly what was wanted by the individual at the end of the meal. The sorbet provoked discussion about whether the Campari overpowered the blood orange, or the blood orange diluted the Campari. In the end we decided it wasn’t relevant. It was smart, clean and refreshing.
We both agree that we are pleasantly sated and that adding coffee or a digestif (a suggestion in the menu is espresso martini!) would cloud the perfectly chosen combination of flavours from the excellent meal. J.D., QC signalled for the bill.
The waiter carefully, perhaps too carefully, placed the bill exactly on the median fold of the tablecloth. He had the engineering precision of a NASA scientist. J.D., QC chortled and commented on it. And then…and then…Nothing. I don’t expect to pay. Ever. A stand-off. He smirked. I simpered. Our table was needed back. In the end he bored me sufficiently (my weak spot) and I produced my Titanium Amex. He takes out something plastic from HSBC. How embarrassing – for me. I make sure he paid first just to get the ghastly thing off the table.
“That was a wonderful evening. Thank you, B. A great choice. Are we going on anywhere?” I grin through my perfect white teeth. “Why don’t you retrieve the coats while I look at the enormous display of oranges and lemons by the front desk.” I am relieved to see my driver still outside. He’s being shouted at by someone from Westminster in a plastic uniform.
“So, where are we going?” I breathe slowly, “You know that thing I wanted to show you. If you find it, someone gives you a lot of money.” His eyes gleam. Disgusting. “It’s just over there on the right, next to the door. Look carefully, it’s the same colour as the wall.” I pointed towards the gloss black Soho nose. “Where?” He peers. “Just a bit further. You’re close. Just a tiny bit more…” J.D., QC stumbles into the chortling crowd of smoking, middle-aged men in front of Sunset Strip. He looks quite at home. I slip into the warm, comfortable leather seats of the Audi A8, and, as we purr up Dean Street, I laugh and laugh and laugh.
Quo Vadis, 26 Dean Street, London W1D 3LL. Tel. 020 7437 9585. Website.