Great Queen Street, 32 Great Queen Street, WC2B 5AA
Meal for two: £70
What is your favourite... surely one of the most irritating questions in the world?
I hate having to reduce my appreciation of something, whether food, music or literature, into such stark terms. Favourite or not-favourite, like good or bad, can never really capture the nuances of how I feel about a thing, a person or a place. And yet... here it is: Great Queen Street is my favourite restaurant in London, if not the world. There, I said it. If you disagree, that is your prerogative, but bear in mind that I will probably question your judgement if you do. Why? Because Great Queen Street is unquestionably marvellous and peerless in its seasonal and simple yet excellent cooking. Because it is affordable and friendly. Lastly, because Mr F took me there for the my birthday when it opened, one of his most thoughtful acts in our pre-married life.
Named for its location, Great Queen Street is hidden away from the Masons and theatre goers who occupy this part of town. Like many post-St John places, it embodies the straightforward, almost brusque, relationship between restaurateur and diner. The setting is quite stark: not a soft furnishing in sight and noisy as a result. If this is a temple to food, it is not some hushed cathedral of fiddly fine dining but rather a jolly harvest festival of sounds, tastes and smells. It is loud, communal and convivial, with hearty food to match. The stripped-back décor and casually dressed staff create a relaxed, friendly atmosphere but they also point to something more fundamental about their approach: everything else is secondary the quality of the food. Behind the slightly shabby exterior is a shrine to British cooking, one that doesn't demand a heavy price for its creations. Yet for some obscure reason, we hadn't been for more than a year. I realised we were long overdue a visit.
I started with a tiny pot of lobster, which came with cornbread. It was not a totally spontaneous decision, I know from past experience that Great Queen Street excels at these creamy dishes of crustacean. Happily, this was no exception. The lobster was rich with a deeply savoury flavour and a smooth, slightly wobbly texture. I didn't expect it to be warm but the heat worked well with the sweet, dense cornbread. Mr F's foie gras with muscat grapes and cobnuts was a wonderfully balanced plate of food. The flavours complemented each other and the foie gras was finer than any we ate on our recent trip to France.
Slightly boldly, I chose grouse for my main course. This was perhaps a little reckless because my previous contact with that particular beast ended badly. Years ago, I bought two very high birds, mouldy feet and all, and did my best to turn them into something good to eat, only to be told by Mr F that they "tasted like pet shop". It was one of the few occasions on which he refused to eat something I had cooked. I was interested to learn whether Great Queen Street could teach me to like grouse. Fortunately, it did. Yes, it was still challengingly bitter but it was also delicious. Mr F was not impressed by the liver on toast which was a bit too visceral for him, but I enjoyed eating something so strongly flavoured, it was almost an intellectual experience rather than one that only satisfies the stomach. I think I am converted. Mr F's hare and celeriac pithivier was also marvellous, with robust, earthy flavours encased in surprisingly delicate pastry. After all that, there was no space for dessert, just coffee and a very slow cycle home.
Going back to Great Queen Street made me wonder why I'd neglected it for so long. Maybe it is because I have been enjoying the dangerous charms of the Anchor and Hope, where the food is equally excellent but the no-bookings policy and a well-stocked bar to wait in always leave me merrily drunk by the time dinner is done. Great Queen Street is a little more civilised, leaving one free to focus on the food. Hearty cooking at its very best and still my favourite place to eat.