That certainly proved to be the case last week when I enjoyed a fantastic dinner at Randall & Aubin in Soho with two very dear friends of mine, none other than the aforementioned Dr Cecilia d’Felice and her teacher fiancé Dick. Although my friendship with them is one I have taken care to nurture, my long-standing acquaintance with Randall & Aubin is one that I have egregiously neglected of late so I was delighted when Cecilia and Dick suggested it for dinner one evening after we’d been a for a couple of cocktails (non-alcoholic in the case of Cecilia who practises what she teaches).
Randall & Aubin occupies the largely unchanged premises of a turn-of-the-twentieth century butcher’s shop, and were it not for the abundant displays of crustacea and neon ‘Fruits de mer’ signs in the windows it would be easy to walk past without realising that this is a restaurant. Those that do venture inside however are rewarded with a beautiful interior of black and white tiles, globe lamps, camp-as-tits chandeliers and a scattering of mirrorballs; as one might deduce from this and from the restaurant’s heart-of-Soho location, R&A is very popular with a gay clientele. Messrs Randall and Aubin may have stocked the primest meat in their day but it’s as nothing compared to the bodies on some of the boys who line up of an evening to bagsy a prime window seat.
Seating is on high stools at marble counters running around the perimeter of and criss-crossing the room. No bookings are taken but the wait if any is usually short and in any case flies by given the calibre of the people watching. The all-day and -night menu offers a good selection of steaks, grills and rotisserie (chickens roast tantalizingly on spits in the open kitchen) but the real focus here is firmly on all things aquatic. Whether you like your fish grilled, fried, steamed or roasted, or your crustacea piled high on shaved ice or dressed and added to a salad, you’ll find something to keep you happy at Randall & Aubin.
To kick off, Cecilia and Dick shared a plate of Randall’s crab cakes with lime mayonnaise and I, remembering how much I’d enjoyed it on my all-too-long-ago last visit, chose the prawn and shrimp cocktail. Both were excellent, unfussy interpretations of classic dishes; to my greedy eyes the portion of three quite small crab cakes appeared a little meagre but there were no complaints from across the table. The cocktail, served in a cocktail glass, ably demonstrated the harmony of the friendship between plump sweet shrimps and zingy Marie Rose sauce.
Main courses also brought smiles to our faces. Dick tucked into a rib-eye steak of such a size as to account for both the weekly portions of red meat allowed on the Emotional Well-being Diet and served with chips and truffle-dressed watercress. The bloodily rare chunk Dick offered me to taste was very much to my liking although Dick felt it could have been more tender (something Dr d’Felice would like us all to be towards ourselves). My salad of Devon crab with avocado, shrimp and pimento dressing was luxurious but light, the addition of just a touch of chilli to copious white and brown crab meat giving the whole an enlivening kick. Cecilia, elegant as ever, ordered pan fried king scallops with braised fennel, a happy marriage of the scallops’ bland sweetness with the delicate aniseed notes of the slow-cooked vegetable.
To drink we had a bottle of a very pleasant 2008 Marlborough Riesling, one of only a few New World wines on a mostly European list all at accessible if perhaps slightly over marked-up prices. I wish I could tell you more about it but I was far too distracted singing the praises of ‘Dare To Be You’ to my neighbours at the table (these things happen with communal seating) to take better notice of the wine. Nor can I tell you much about the bill, as this was one of those rare but delightful occasions where I was kindly treated. I would hazard a guess at about £35 a head to include a £1.50 per person cover charge and 12.5% service, more if you were to fancy trying one of the spectacular if expensive sea food platters. Service throughout, provided by a team as handsome as any of the aesthetically-enhanced customers, was friendly, fast and at times edifyingly flirty.
Despite this being my nth visit it was only on spotting a framed press clipping in the loo that I learned that Randall & Aubin is co-owned and run by TV chef Ed Baines, but don’t let that put you off for this is no celeb cook vanity project. This is a well-designed, meticulously thought out, expertly-run enterprise serving unpretentious but elegant food at sensible prices in an egalitarian atmosphere. And that, like having friends as wonderful as Dick & Cecilia to enjoy it with, makes me for one very happy indeed.
Randall & Aubin, 16 Brewer Street, London W1F 0SQ Tel: 020 7287 4447 (No reservations) http://www.randallandaubin.com