Sunday, 17 January 2010

Dean Street Townhouse

Pamela Mitford, the least well-known but no less fascinating of those six remarkable sisters, had a particular gift for remembering menus from luncheons and dinners that she had attended, even many years after the event. Almost every letter to any of her sisters (available in this fascinating book) includes at least some culinary reference. This was a source of great amusement to her siblings who, having little else to tease her about - Pamela having chosen a life rather more ordinary than they - would playfully mock her almost photographic recall of what had been consumed by whom on occasions that they could not even remember.

I envy such anamnestic ability; while I am passionate about food, and (I hope evidently) in writing about it, it's rare for me to actually remember what I've eaten at a particular meal for particularly long. The fact that even now, several days after dinner at Dean Street Townhouse, I can still remember not just everything I ate but everything my companion ate, is exceptional – which pretty much sums up my experience of this Soho newcomer.

Dean Street Townhouse - as well as the restaurant there's an affordable boutique hotel - occupies a large corner site which, if my memory serves me well, used to be a Pitcher & Piano. Entrance to the restaurant  is via a very discreet doorway, supervised by an improbably handsome young doorman who gives new arrivals a lightning-fast, almost imperceptible once-over just to ensure they're not unaware of the change of ownership and direction. It's a nice conceit; one's made to feel rather in the know for even being there, and that's before setting foot over the threshold.

Once in, the buzz of the room almost knocks you off your feet; it's not loud, or overbearing, there's just a very palpable air that this is a place for conversation and animation, not sotto voce plotting or culinary navel gazing. The welcome, from maitre d' Gina Glennon (ex-Scott's, J. Sheekey and Le Caprice) is effusive and sincere; here is a woman who knows how to make total strangers feel like old friends. 

One side of the large main room is dominated by an imposing dark wood bar, while the other side accommodates banks of red leather banquettes and about two dozen tables for twos and fours. There's a couple of booths at the back of the room for larger groups, and separated from the main room by heavy curtains is The Parlour, an altogether cosier space featuring rather racy wallpaper and comfy armchair seating. Adorning every wall is a fine selection of monochromatic modern art ("Is that a Mark Titchner?" I asked Gina as she led us to our table; "Oh yes!" she replied with evident pride) and the lighting is subtle and just right - as well as neo-Gothic chandeliers overhead, tall candles in Wee Willie Winkie-style brass holders adorn every table. It's altogether a very agreeable place to be.

What's also highly agreeable is the complete lack of pretension of the menu. The food is solidly, unapologetically British - not even modern British - with just a few concessions to American and European palates. Nothing needs translating or explaining, and although provenance is clearly important it's not gone into in excessive detail, so crab is identified as being from Dorset and the rib steak from Bannockburn, but without any tiresome attribution to a particular net, field, farmer or fisherman. It's the kind of food which one could, and most likely does, eat at home, but with the convenience of being cooked - superbly as it turns out - by someone else.

To start off, PV went for fried duck egg with wild mushrooms and I chose twice-baked haddock souffle. Both were as delicious and comforting as they sound; a slice of toasted brioche added sweetness to PV's rich, soft egg and bosky mushrooms, and my adeptly seasoned, light-as-parfait souffle came swathed in an indulgent chive beurre blanc.

Main courses were also expertly rendered. My pan-fried ray with capers and lemon was a butch, thick-cut slab of fish accompanied by just the right quantity of well-judged caper butter and PV's salt beef with caraway dumplings and pickle was a generous, colourful bowlful of thick tranches of tender meat, with carrots and new potatoes as well as the advertised dumplings and gherkins. We ordered a side dish of creamed spinach more out of interest than necessity; it was also very good, one of those rare examples of a side dish actually adding something more to a meal than bulk.

Though all the puddings sounded appealing - good old British favourites including apple pie and queen of puddings - from the moment we saw it on the menu we knew we had to have the sherry trifle for two. The brilliance of this dish lay in its being completely unbastardised, a huge traditional glass coupe filled with layers of fruit in jelly, real vanilla custard and an abundance of whipped cream, all topped with crumbled meringue - home-made I'm sure - and flaked almonds. Oh and sherry. Lots, and lots of sherry. Superb as it was we struggled to finish it; the kitchen at Dean Street Townhouse holds no truck with stingy portions.

From the fairly concise and ungreedily marked-up wine list, we chose a 2008 Roberto Sarotto Gavi di Gavi which provided enough dry apple fruit to complement my fish choices while being robust enough to tackle the richness of PV's duck egg and beef. The list is almost exclusively Old World with a strong bias towards France, although there's a handful of New World choices in the mid price range. What's delightful about the list is that it starts low - at just £15.25 for the cheapest white and £16.50 for red - and peaks at (and I use the next word  relatively) only £140 or so, with the climb from bottom to top coming in manageable steps. This means that, whatever your wine budget might be, you will get a far better bottle at Dean Street Townhouse for your money than you would at many another restaurant playing at the same level.

Service was, at all times, attentive, friendly and polished; drinks took at times a little too long to arrive (our dessert wine came only when we had all but finished the trifle) but that was the only, minor, hiccup. Importantly, every single member of staff we came into contact with seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themself, and determined to ensure that we should too. There are very few places that one can say that about.

Which, neatly, brings me back to my initial point and the point which will ensure that Dean Street Townhouse thrives: it is truly exceptional. You're treated like a VIP whether or not you're a celebrity or media mogul, of which there were several on the night we visited. You are served unintimidating, unpretentious, but excellent food and wine, and charged very fairly for it. You're served by staff who are polite, professional and who clearly love what they are doing and know exactly when to be at your table and when to leave you alone.

You have fun at Dean Street Townhouse - and believe me, everyone at every table was smiling. When you leave, it's with a sense that not only has your visit been greatly appreciated, but that you would be very welcome to stay the night - a note on the menu advises that rooms start at a bargain £95 - and that if you really must go, then everyone would like it very much if you were to come back soon. And come back soon I most certainly will; Dean Street Townhouse falls into the rare category of being a restaurant that I can't wait to return to. 

Pamela Mitford once mused that were she ever to write her memoirs, they would be all about food. Although the likelihood of anyone ever wishing to read (let alone publish) my memoirs is remote to say the least, that theoretical volume were I to write it would, too, contain a great deal about food. And there, in the chapter entitled 'Memorable Meals', would be at least a paragraph or two on Dean Street Townhouse. 

Dean Street Townhouse, 69-71 Dean Street, London W1D 3SE Tel: 020 7434 1775

Dean Street Townhouse on Urbanspoon

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