Monday, March 30, 2009

London Restaurant Week #2: O-M-G: 1 Lombard Street - The Restaurant

The stately City entrance to 1 Lombard Street, directly across the street from the Bank Tube Station;
fitting since it was once a banking hall.

I've reached a new low (or three).

1. This past Friday I actually considered skipping dinner at a Michelin-star
red restaurant to take a nap. And if you know me, you know: I don't nap.

2. Once Matt
had (knowing me better than myself) badgered me into going to the aforementioned restaurant (despite me fighting him the whole way bratty-infant-style), I unabashedly wore black stretch pants (albeit with a nice top). And I didn't feel guilty.

3. I ate a steak. And it was Friday (though not the goodly one - that's L's due date!). But it was a goodly steak.

* * *

On those three
inspiring notes: we made it to Restaurant Week 2. And it all ended with a bang. Allow me to explain...

*scooby-dooing flashback noises*

O-M-G: 1 Lombard Street - The Restaurant
or, how I became a quasi-philistine one Friday night during London Restaurant Week

The Epic Journey
On Thursday night I was struck with a sudden and harsh attack of Pregnancy Insomnia. I woke up at 3:30am and couldn't get back to sleep until close to 7, at which point I was
half an hour away from getting up for breakfast with Matt anyhow. In those wee-hours I treated myself to the slow and excruciating torture of considering every possible aspect of what awaits me in the next few weeks: labor, delivery, child-rearing and every scary permutation of those things separately and together. Among the more disturbing issues was the then-real fear that I would, once he was born, forget I had a child and leave him at the birth center, grocery store, or a random Chinese restaurant (don't ask).

All this, as you can imagine, made for a relatively cranky Brenda on Friday. And also explains why at 6:00pm when Matt called and asked if I was on my way to his office to head to dinner, he found me sitting on the couch knitting socks and watching re-runs of Cold Case Files. I suddenly, despite hating naps, felt it was my right to go to sleep immediately and threw a sma
ll tantrum on the phone. Luckily, Matt was having none of it and made me get up and get to town (Thanks Matt :)).

Two bus-rides, numerous unmerited glares and holier-than-thou shakes of the head later, I arrived in front of his office ready to yell at anyone who gave me the chance. Lucky for Matt he came out with a co-worker (he later told me he did this on purpose knowing I was in a foul mood) and my situationally-forced-manners actually cheered me up to the prospect of some delicious food.

The cab driver was a decent chap and I always love riding into The City because of its pretty neo-classical / Dickensian style. When we pulled up to 1 Lombard Street, I was pretty much giddy
(as I usually am at the prospect of good food) and ready to feast. Ah, what can I say? La donna e (seriously) mobile!

The Not-so-Epic Ambiance
1 Lombard Street is one of London's Michelin-starred restaurants, so expectations were high. I saved it for the second weekend of London Restaurant week for this reason, and knowing also that it would be one of the last super-posh romantic dates Matt and I would have for a while, and possibly the very last without a child in our lives (very, very weird to think of the end of that era, but generally something I am more happy than upset by).

Luckily, I would say that, in general, we made a good choice for our adult-centric-swan-song-date.

The welcome to the restaurant was pleasant though a little confusing. After our reservation
was confirmed and our coats were taken, we were shown to the restaurant (not the Brasserie) by a nice (French) host. We walked through an incredibly beautiful open-plan room full of neo-classical domes and skylights. A live piano player was belting out jazz tunes and the clinking of glasses and silver-ware gave the air a general excitement that brought a familiar nice-restaurant-induced smile to my face.

The beautiful bar and brasserie at 1 Lombard Street.

You can imagine my disappointment when we were shown to the back room - The "Exclusive" Restaurant area - which resembled a catering banquet hall at the Hilton in College Station Texas. No music, no clinking, no circular bar with mirrored-shelves. Just reddish walls (that I couldn't help but remember as taupe) with neo-classical / Titianesque paintings and cheap looking centerpieces. Our table was fine - in the corner with a full-view of the room, but we couldn't hear the music from the Brasserie and, in the end, agreed we felt more "excluded" than "exclusive" by the other-ness of "The Restaurant." Even after a thoroughly fulfilling meal with decent service, I wanted to be in the Brasserie. M
ental note made.

The "Excluded" Restaurant at 1 Lombard street; I'd rather be in the Brasserie.

My Catty but nevertheless Amusing General Observations

The Maitre D' was a small and relatively efficient (though, at times, feckless) man with the widest pale-pink tie this side of the Atlantic. (I guess that must be a prerequisite for becoming a Maitre D' at a fine French restaurant: a never ending wardrobe of wide pastel ties and tapered suit pants.) Sadly, his French charm was ruined somewhat by his slight inability to understand English properly. I witnessed him screw up orders at, at least, two tables (mostly regarding how people wanted their steaks cooked but in one case bringing four non-vegetarian starters to a table of four vegetarians).

When he asked me how I wanted my steak cooked, I had to repeat my answer twice before he understood I was saying "medium." When one customer complained his steak was overcooked and that he had requested it "rare" the Maitre D' snapped "Well did you request it BLEU?" in that specifically culinarily-condascending-French way we all know and hate. The man took the high road and just nodded, but come on, I'd expect a little better than that for London's restaurant scene's upper-crust.

The waiters were fine. Not great, but fine. Matt said they must have put the second-string on for Restaurant Week and I am a little bit tempted to agree. Our water was spilled twice while being re-filled (though at least no visible fuss was made over our not ordering bottled water). Matt's glass of wine was knocked over (thank God it was empty) while the table was being mediocrely cleaned of crumbs with the crumb scraper. And only one of the waitstaff ever bothered to ask how the meal was going, whether we needed anything else or even liked our food. I always hate it when there's no dialogue between the staff and the patrons: it makes you feel like a snooty imposter. I love talking to waiters and waitresses - it makes the meal familiar and memorable.

I don't know about you, but if I'm seated next to the wrong people at a restaurant, it really affects my meal. I can't help but take notice of particularly annoying, loud, or train-wreckish dinners and Matt always complains that I'm not listening when this happens. Well, aside from the actual restaurant and staff at 1 Lombard Street, some of the patrons were a little bit hard to watch.

The people next to us were under dressed (listen to me with my stretch pants on!) and seemed pretty out
of their element. Excuse the snobbery but most of them had never heard of risotto before - leaving the only "knowledgeable one" to compare it to "sticky rice pudding" at which they all made disgusted faces and corresponding noises (I was more than flabbergasted as the risotto was actually, IMHO, the best course of the meal!). At least two out of the four people at that table also ordered their steaks well-done (I couldn't help but cringe - why the hell come to 1 Lombard Street for a well-done steak?!) and one guy in particular had a gnarly (yes, GNARLY) habit of chewing loudly with his mouth open and stabbing his food as if he were stuck in prehistoric times eating a nice juicy saber-toothed-lionsteak. Is it completely snooty of me to say that being next to them kind of brought the experience down a notch? Well, some might say: that's what I get for going during restaurant week.

On the other hand, bread was plentiful and promptly provided throughout the meal. Our water glasses were always full (if a little wet) and our drink order came quickly despite the wine recommendation being given somewhat grudgingly. The staff were smiley despite
their silence and all the courses were timed perfectly, giving you a minute to recover in between. The portions were small but exactly right for what was actually a five-course dinner rather than three. And they always served ladies first, which definitely gets them bonus points in my book. :)

The Exceptionally Goodly Food
Now to the O-M-G part of the experience. The Food. It was, without exception, absolutely delicious and immaculately prepared. The quality of the ingredients, the presentation, the seasoning was all it should have been for a Michelin-starred establishment and I find pretty much nothing to fault. Maybe except myself and my shady eating of a steak on a Friday during Lent. (I guess we all have our ways of rebelling.) I felt we got an amazing deal for what we paid and even today, three days later, I am still dreaming about that damned delicious risotto. For the food alone, I would definitely go back.

Here's what we had:

Turnip and Foie Gras Veloute

Served daintily in an espresso cup, this frothy hot cup of deliciousness was so good I couldn't resist the forbidden fruit of goose-liver, even in my pregnant state.

Starter: Smoked Halibut Risotto with Quail Eggs and English Mustard and Lemon Veloute Garnished with a diminutive sprig of dill and a solitary but perfectly cooked cherry tomato
This was by far the star dish of the night. I'm not a huge fan of smoked things and much less smoked halibut, as the flavor is usually too strong, but this was unbelievable. I could eat a giant bowl of it for breakfast every day. The fish was so tender and flakey, the quail eggs were runny, and this is the only dish I've ever liked English mustard in, period. The people at the table next to us really missed out.

Main: Pave of Beef (sirloin) with morels, vin jaune sauce and vegetable fondant
We weren't sure what to expect but what we got was a tiny, square portion of extremely tasty and well-seasoned steak with similarly geometric vegetables (parsnip, carrot, potato and turnip) cooked to perfection. They were generous with the morels, and the sauce - with just a splash of cream - literally made me want to pick up my plate and lick it. Every bit as sinful as I had hoped.

The Drinks:
Glass of Cabernet Merlot, Glass of Sauvignon Blanc

We each ordered a glass of wine to go with the meal. Matt ordered white on a whim and ended up with a deliciously fruity but not sweet Sauvignon Blanc that smelled strongly of pomegranate. I wanted to steal his glass and guzzle it after I tasted it. My Cabernet Merlo, recommended by the French guy, was medium-bodied and went really well with the steak.


We asked two separate servers what kind of granita this was and got the same answer twice: pear. But we still don't believe it. The granita smelled and tasted like Pomegranate - plus it had a pink hue to it. Whatever it was, it was delicious and tasted a little like a yummy frozen Campari and soda, an Italian indulgence I never get sick of.

Dark Chocolate Pudding with Pears and Dark Chocolate Tuiles

This is the only course I couldn't remember the exact description of (I just refuse to take pictures with my cell phone). Suffice it to say that we were given a plate with a giant dollop of chocolate pudding-looking-stuff surrounded by sliced pears, a cream sauce and some crispy dark-chocolate tuiles. It was all delicious (and I don't even like the pear-chocolate combo that much) and a great way to end the night.

* * *

1 Lombard Street - The Restaurant
London EC3 9AA

Tel: 020 7929 6611

*All photos taken from the 1 Lombard Street Website, unless otherwise noted.
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  1. Your commentary is so incredibly vivid and your observations downright hysterical. I can't say I've enjoyed any other dinner more where I wasn't even there! It wasn't at all snobby to feel that other diners can be a drag on a meal; unfortunately, they become part of the ambience and one can only hope that they'll add, not detract. (Sounds like the Brasserie had a good group!)

    In the end, though, it does come to the food and it sounds like you and Matt had an exceptional dinner. I don't know if we'll be fortunate enough to visit London but if we do, I will keep your restaurant week reviews in mind, not to mention remembering to order my steak 'bleu'.

    I understand the Church allows exceptions on no-meat-Lenten-Fridays for very young children: Ludovictus certainly qualifies, so no worries there! Now, go take a nap.

  2. What a delicious meal! Each course sounds superb!

  3. Sounds like a very fitting departure to an end of an era - this one you'll remember. I enjoyed all the descriptions and laughed out loud and the pastel wardrobes. I encountered many similar combinations in London and loved it, mostly because I knew it would never pass muster in the US. The maitre 'd sounds very like one I encountered, I suspected he's bounced around.

    Hope you have plenty of sleep going forward and look to a few more stories before you start introducing "what's his name once he's out" to us. I know its a secret. =)