Monday, July 6, 2015

Hawksmoor - London

A steak has always had great symbolism. I guess that so long as capitalism remains [except Hindu capitalism] steak will always be symbolic. It makes no difference how rich or poor you are. A steak is always something that is aspirational. It remains a `treat’, a gift to yourself [if you are paying for it] a sign of your power and wealth. You can never go wrong giving someone a steak dinner.

Steak is not necessarily a Western creation. In Japan you have some of the most expensive and prized steak – the Wagyu beef is legendary. In South America Brazil and Argentina pride themselves on the quality of their meat and consequently steaks.

Technically speaking meat, as you know, is muscle. Muscle has fibres running along its length. A cut of meat perpendicular to the fibres, is a steak. Thus, a steak is one piece of muscle with or without bone attached. Yes you do have fish steaks, mushroom steaks, paneer steaks, tofu steaks and so on. But those are called steak simply because their shape is similar to a real meat steak.

A A Gill is a great writer. I am reproducing a few paragraphs written by him. The matter of steaks could not be more eloquently put.

“Why have we fallen in such greedy love with beef? What does steak say to us and about us? Well, it’s manly. If food came with gender appellations, steak would definitely be at the top of the bloke column. Women can eat it, they can appreciate it, but it’s like girls chugging pints of beer and then burping. It’s a cross-gender impersonation. Steak is a high-value food that doesn’t need a chef. You don’t want some twiddly-accented, jus-dribbling, foam-flicking chef mincing about with your meat. You want a guy in a checked shirt with his sleeves rolled up forking and tonging your T-bone. Steaks even come with their own butch utensils. It’s more like engineering or Lego than cooking. It’s boy stuff. The porterhouse used to be the dining choice of a gauche out-of-towner, a man who was uncomfortable with chic urban menus and didn’t know how to order—“Oh, I’ll just have the steak. Wipe its behind and bring it to the table,” they’d say, just to let the rest of us cheese-eating sophisticates know that they weren’t intimidated hicks. Restaurants would keep steak on the menu just for them because they knew there would always be a certain sort of guy who didn’t think it was an acceptable date restaurant if he couldn’t get a New York strip. Chefs hate steaks because their reputations are left in the hands of their butchers—two cuts off the same muscle can eat quite differently.

Today the prices being charged for prime cuts in prestige dining rooms—where the raw material is paraded to the table like a Premier Cru—can equal a day’s pay for the waiter. The expense adds to the special pleasure, the achievement, and is the secret ingredient of the filet mignon. It’s an emblem of victory, of survival. A slab of bleeding meat is symbolic of something fundamental, something pre-banking, pre-mortgage, pre-downsizing, prehistoric. It is a metaphor for the most basic achievement: to kill for sustenance, to be strong, to man up.”

We had booked to eat at Hawksmoor. This along with Goodman is one of the better steak houses in London. Of course there are many more like The Cut, or The Guinea Grill which are as highly regarded, but it was to be Hawksmoor for us. This was our second visit.

A bit about the Hawksmoor Group. The Hawksmoor was started by two school friends – Will Beckett and Huw Gott in 2006. 9 years later they have 6 branches – 5 in London and one in Manchester with seating for approximately 930 people [excluding Manchester]. Add to this seating in the bars which would add up to an additional 150 people. So you are talking about approximately 1100 seats in London. The Air Street branch where we ate has 235 seats and 50 at the bar. The waiter said that every normal evening from 5 pm to closing i.e. for dinner service, they feed an average of 350 diners. At Christmas time this number shoots up to 900. Yes, 900 in one outlet in one night, albeit the largest one in the group.

Now bear with me for one more paragraph.

In 2012 the average price paid by a customer was GBP 65. Let’s assume that this has gone up to GBP 75 today. In 2012 when they had only 3 outlets they served 7000 customers a week or 1000 a day. Today, I would imagine with two additional outlets in London [excluding Manchester] this number would be about 12000 a week. This is just my estimation. So if you do the math the revenues for the group would be 46.8 million pounds which is 468 crores! Yes sir 468 crores. I find that figure staggering.

We had a reservation at 7.30 pm and the place was quite full, not chocker block but healthy. As I have said earlier, this is a large restaurant, 235 seats and 50 at the bar area. The place is done up in an Art Deco style which I quite like. Green leather seats and banquettes with brass lamps. I guess to keep costs down the flourishes of serving bread and butter are done away with, as is the use of a tablecloth. This steak experience is boiled down to its essentials. The food, the cocktails and the wines. The meat served is all British and all grass fed. In America the beef is corn fed. This makes a big difference to the taste as well as the texture. The reason for this difference is that grass is the natural food for Cows not corn. Corn gives the cows diabetes and causes them to become fat. Hence the meat is far more marbled and noticeably sweeter.

I was very thirsty so I ordered a beer while HRH the Queen of Kutch asked for a Gin and Tonic. We pored over the menu. Larger cuts of meat weighing upwards of 750 grams are listed on the several blackboards. These are to share. This is a good way to eat. A larger cut works our more economical for the diner, but there is a problem if different diners want the cut to be cooked at different temperatures. We had no such problem. We chose an 800 gram Porterhouse cooked medium rare for our main course. As a starter we ordered Pork Belly which we decided to share. Good move that as you will read later. To accompany our steak we asked for some Spinach with Garlic and Lemon, Grilled Bone Marrow, Chips cooked in Beef Dripping – just like they did at MacDonald’s all those years ago - and an Anchovy Mayonnaise. To drink we ordered a bottle of Ramon Bilbao, ‘Black Label’ Rioja, Tempranillo/Garnacha 2012. A decent wine.

First came the Tamworth Belly Ribs, Tamworth being a breed of pig. I had imagined we would get spare ribs, which correctly are ribs from the lower end of the pig towards the belly. These are much smaller with consequent less meat. However what turned up was quite the opposite. We got the pork belly without the ribs. This was two thick sliced of pork belly cooked to the point of flaking covered with a rich dark sauce with reasonably exotic spicing. I could get some fennel, some mild chilli and some sweet. This was accompanied by a really nice salad of pickled onions and red cabbage. These were two large slices. More than enough for us to share. Absolutely delicious.

Tamworth Belly Ribs

Then came the main course. The star of the show being the Porterhouse grilled Medium Rare. A Porterhouse and T Bone are very similar. There is a central `T’ shaped bone and on either side you have two different cuts of meat. One side has the tenderloin or Fillet Mignon which is very soft, reasonably flavourless and virtually fatless. The other side has the New York Strip which is more chewy and with more marbling and therefore far more flavoursome. This came beautifully cooked, at the temperature requested, sliced thick and detached from the bone. Unfortunately, I did not take a photograph of the slice. The steak was excellent, tender and well-seasoned. Not a word of complaint.

The Grilled Bone Marrow looks very big, but the amount of marrow in each bone is small. This was scooped out with a spoon, salted and eaten with a mouthful of steak. The chips fried in Beef dripping were lovely and crisp. The restaurant makes its own tomato ketchup which we tried. It was good. The Anchovy Mayonnaise was excellent. I also asked for some English Mustard to go with my steak. The accompaniments were all top notch. Everything was finished.     

Pudding - Peanut Butter Shortbread with Salted Caramel Ice Cream

It is difficult cooking such a large cut of meat especially with a bone attached. This was done skilfully. A steak dinner is an enormously enjoyable meal which, alas, our honourable Government has for the foreseeable future denied us the pleasure of back in Mumbai. This restaurant was an example of skilful yet extremely simple cooking, very competently done. Cooking well and consistently is often the key to success. No need to complicate the menu. Have you ever eaten at Bukhara/Peshawri at the ITC? Exactly the same. A short menu, simple food [just barbequing meat] very competently and consistently done.

This is a place you must visit.


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