Buried deep in London’s Royal Academy is one of the gallery’s best-kept secrets – the cooking of Ivan Simeoli
Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, London W1 (020 7300 5920). Meal for two: £120Nungwi Village
Recently a new restaurant called Steam and Rye, which serves an on-trend menu of American barbecue, hamburgers and worrying deep-fried pickles, announced it would be running a 50% off night for women only. Except they didn’t call them women. They called them “fillies”, beneath a cartoon of a woman with large breasts – she was pictured wearing only a bra – reclining in a martini glass. I checked my watch to see whether it was suddenly 1957. Nope, still 2013.
If this joint were in one of those southern US states where an equal opportunities policy means beating up all minorities with equal vigour it might have been understandable. But it’s not. Steam and Rye is in the City of London. It has big-name backers. (Including actress and calendar model Kelly Brook – go figure.) I’m minded to turn up wearing only a bra, recline in a giant martini glass and demand my 50%. Some people may need post-traumatic stress counselling after witnessing that, but I believe it’s a price worth paying to make a point. (The point being that gender-based discounts amount to unlawful discrimination.)
The restaurant sector has not always had the cleanest of records when it comes to patronising women. The last time I went to the otherwise lovely Le Gavroche a few years ago it was still giving the “laydees” menus without prices, because obviously having ovaries meant you couldn’t possibly be settling the bill. At the far thinner end of the wedge there’s the business of serving women first. This, I recognise, is tricky. Some people still like it. They see it as an old-fashioned but rather charming form of good manners.
And some, like the women with me at dinner at the Keeper’s House of the Royal Academy, see it as a cue for eye-rolling so vigorous you can hear the balls rasping against their skull sockets. What matters is how the front of house staff deals with it when told to stop. The staff here dealt with it brilliantly. They acknowledged the request, altered their service, and just moved on. Throughout they were engaged without being stalkerish, funny without being intrusive. They were really good at bringing us things to eat and checking we were OK while eating them. After some weird, uneasy service recently it was a blessed relief.
Then again it’s an Oliver Peyton restaurant, and that sort of professionalism does come with the territory. As a restaurateur, Irish-born Peyton is a very safe pair of hands. We know this because many of London’s most significant institutions have consigned their dining rooms to his grasp. From the Admiralty at Somerset House in 2000 through the restaurant in St James’s Park in 2004 to the dining rooms of the National Gallery, the Wellcome Collection, the ICA, the Royal Academy and many more besides, if it’s a London landmark or stuffed full of pretty things, Peyton has probably fed people there. He has the immigrant’s intense love of his adopted city. He has made London a better place than it was when he arrived.
I have reviewed many of his restaurants and they usually do the job. There’s nothing overtly showy about them. It’s all understated good taste. It’s bourgeois, ingredient-led food that sits comfortably alongside a diet of high culture without attracting too much attention to itself. They are the Penguin Classics of restaurants. Which is where the Keeper’s House, a newly renovated townhouse off the Royal Academy courtyard, differs. There is some very clever, very modern cooking here. The problem is it may all just be a little too clever for its own good.
The restaurant at the Keeper’s House is the sort of thing a clattering, showy city like London needs: a room that’s tucked away from view. The building is meant as a kind of club house for Royal Academicians and friends of the RA. From 4pm, however, the two-roomed basement restaurant opens to the public, if you can find it (through the arch off Piccadilly, head to the top right-hand corner). You can easily hide here. That said, it feels uncomfortably like a stage set, the curving green baize walls, hung with lumps of carved stone, appearing oddly temporary as if, were it all to go wrong, the whole restaurant could literally fold, like a piece of flat-pack furniture.Nungwi Village
Perhaps it’s meant to make you focus on chef Ivan Simeoli‘s food, which has a rugged structural quality. It’s all haute peasant, if the peasants were haute enough to afford a £10 starter and a £20 main. It begins with the offer of “foraged” red currant and prosecco and from there disappears deep into the hedgerows, a delightful pose given the nearest field is the condom-strewn Green Park and nobody should eat anything foraged from there. You can imagine arty types nodding sagely over each plateful and pondering meaning. Clay-baked potatoes arrive looking like buff globes of Henry Moore masonry. There are splodges of truffle cream and bits of artichoke both deep-fried and roasted. It’s lots of earthy, desolate things shaking hands. A mushroom broth with chestnuts and bits of pickled turnip is brown – very, very brown. There is an intense depth of flavour. And lots of brownness. Cured mackerel with pickled fennel is a little brighter, but again, it is to be admired rather than swooned over.
Mains are various riffs on protein with bitter brassicas. There are outbreaks of black cabbage and chard and garlic leaves. There are dark-skinned heritage carrots instead of carrots from the local housing estate. Glazed pumpkin with the lamb offers a rare burst of colour. All the key players, the fillets of brill or bass, the roast lamb, are very well cooked indeed. Saucing is powerful without being over-reduced. It’s all knife-edge poised. But we end up craving something a little sticky and, well, less good for us. These dishes feel knowingly like a northern European winter, all twilight and pungent green herbs. It’s an episode of Borgen fashioned from food. My suspicion is that, come the spring, the menu will, like the rest of Peyton’s places, head towards something less self-absorbed and more French rustic.
Desserts offer relief: a very good chocolate caramel concoction, a soothingly light, frothy rice pudding flavoured with clementine, a splodge of buttermilk pudding with dribbles of honey. The wine list doesn’t try to mug you on the way in or out. Even so, the bill mounts. If only they would offer 50% off for those of us with, say, testicles. Is it really too much to ask?
Jay’s news bites
■ For impressive dishes from a restaurant attached to a public venue, try the Bristol Lido. Swimming catering was never like this when I was a kid; they don’t even serve Bovril. Instead enjoy food from the wood-fired oven, on a menu which takes inspiration from southern Europe. Lunch might include scallops with herb and garlic butter, honey and bay-roasted chicken with date and almond stuffing, or roast bass with winter tabbouleh (lidobristol.com).
■ Think your Christmas is going to be extra special? Here’s the service for you: a London sculptor will use 3D printer technology to scan and then miniaturise the carcass of your turkey before casting it in solid silver as a ring. Yours for £650 – because you’re worth it (scrapbook jewellery.com).
■ The Well Hung Meat Company is offering a “thrifty box” for those dealing with the financial excesses of Christmas: a selection of slower cooking, cheaper cuts, including a 1.5kg piece of hogget (12- to 18-month-old lamb) and a braising beef joint. “Thrifty” is relative. It’s still £50 (wellhungmeat.com).