By Alastair Sadler
Stepping onto the South Bank from Westminster Bridge I walk through a mass of tourists until I’m elevated onto the sweeping Portland stone crescent of London’s County Hall and into Gillray’s Steakhouse & Bar.
Once a palace of local London politics and heart of Red Ken Livingstone‘s left wing GLC that glared across the River Thames at Margaret Thatcher’s Westminster, now it’s a temple of tourism. Shadowed by the London Eye, home to the Sea Life London Aquarium, the London Dungeon and a Marriott hotel, Gillray’s is an oasis of calm.
Opened in 1922, much of Ralph Knott’s refined polished interior has been retained, its Edwardian Baroque style taking its queue from Sir Christopher Wren’s elegant churches and the Art Nouveau movement in . This is a venue of curves and circles. The circular bar with its inner circle of high–backed yellow sofas and boasting a nice round selection of 100 gins, sweeps into the curved crescent dining room with Gillray prints set against warm yellow oak panels.
Gillray would indeed have loved this. Dubbed the father of the political cartoon (he died in 1815), I picture James Gillray sitting at the window table next to me, the sun streaming in from the semi circular garden. I’ve no doubt today’s political characters and carry–ons would fuel his hand and imagine him sketching another cutting satire of the great and the good.
Gillray’s seasonal menu
From local authority to locally sourced, Gillray’s wonderful seasonal ‘best of the British countryside and larder’ menu was a delight to sample. The chosen hors d’oeuvre was as British as the Thames itself: Yorkshire pudding with melted cheddar cheese and a horseradish sauce creamed with crème fraîche. Next up, a starter of duck liver pate presented in an egg box lined with straw containing a hollowed eggshell filled with the smooth and creamy delight. This is accompanied with a tarte gin and red currant chutney and brioche soldiers.
Before the main course, our waiter, Daniel, presents a large cigar box. I glance at him, confused. Haven’t we had a smoking ban since 2006? Smiling he opens the box to reveal a selection of different sized steak knives, the largest of which wouldn’t look out of place in the hands of Crocodile Dundee or Jim Bowie. We selected our weapons like duellists choosing pistols, then patiently await the arrival of the main event.
I’d ordered a 600g 30-day dry aged Aberdeen Angus T-bone steak, reared and butchered by eighth generation Yorkshire butcher Darragh O’Shea from his own herd of cattle. T-bone is always a great choice as it’s effectively two steaks in one. The larger, meatier fat marbled steak is the sirloin (or strip loin), while the smaller steak – the filet mignon – is softer, aptly named tenderloin. The trick is cooking both to perfection at the same time, something that was done here, and to perfection. This was served with bone marrow for extra flavour and a sweet confit of vine cherry tomatoes.
This was never going to be a light meal, so for a side order I chose the irresistible triple fried chips, along with the flat cap mushrooms with rosemary for a touch of virtue.
And for dessert? Burnt cream, a dessert claimed to have been served at Trinity College, Cambridge, as early as the 1630s and where the college’s crest was burnt into sugar on top of a custard using a hot iron. Of course in France it’s known as crème brûlée and in Spain crema catalana, but we’ll let the historians argue that one out. This one is light and soft with a crunchy sugar top and served with vanilla poached rhubarb.
Conclusion: The location is iconic and the food delicious but what made it special for me was the excellence of the service and the playful quirky touches that may best be described as English humour. I’m sure Gillray would approve.
Visit their website at gillrays.com.
Contributor Alastair Sadler has taught salsa professionally in London since 1995 and created the world’s first Salsa Rapido 1-Day Intensive Salsa Course. His hobby is stand up comedy, and in addition to acting as MC of Streetbeat Comedy, he regularly takes his show to the Edinburgh Fringe. You’ll find him at www.streetbeat.co.uk.