Vegetarians, look away now…
Since meat is rapidly becoming as valuable as gold bullion, and the UN has upsettingly hinted we all eat a little less of it, we at Smith HQ reckon that it’s more important than ever to make sure that the slices of ex-cow that pass our lips are of the utmost quality. With this in mind, the Smith editorial team (that’s the elite squad of Juliet, Rufus, Lucy, Jasmine and me, in case you were wondering) have been on a meat-seeking mission to find the best steak in London. (Lucy was obliged to suspend her quest for London’s best coffee in order to participate).
There could be no better place for our steakout (sorry, I fear there are more of these to come) than Hawksmoor. This Manhattanite blend of cocktail bar and steakhouse is half-hidden on a blink-and-you’re-in-Nando’s stretch of Commercial Street round the back of Spitalfields. Cityboy territory, it’s true, but given that at the moment most cityboys are spending their evenings weeping into their Maserati dashboards, we were confident that the restaurant wouldn’t exactly be packed.
We were wrong: by 8pm, every last cherry-wood table was occupied, but more of that later.
Hawksmoor’s owned by bar mogul, restaurateur, general entrepreneur and Guardian beer evangelist, Will Beckett, who opened it with his business partner, Huw Gott, in 2006. Since then, the rampantly carnivorous food critic Jay Rayner, has declared Hawksmoor’s fare ‘the best steak I have ever eaten in this country’, and the steaks on offer are apparently even good enough to make the redoubtable Giles Coren end a restaurant review on an unstressed syllable.
We were lucky enough to meat (sorry, again) Will for a quick – if heavyweight – cocktail or two before dinner. For a man with two restaurants, a bar, a gastropub and a bar and restaurant consultancy firm in his accounts book, he’s unexpectedly down to earth, much younger than his success would suggest, and, of course, passionate about bovine cooking. Will starts by telling us about his tequila – he imports it directly from a small producer in Guadelajara – which makes up a key component in Hawksmoor’s cocktail selection. Ah yes, the cocktails. The bar menu is practically a chronicle of the history of American mixology from Prohibition onwards, and we were forced to admit collective defeat at the gullet-boggling variety on offer and put our palates in the hands of Hawksmoor’s formidable barman. With barely a moment’s thought, he shook us each up our own individual taste-matched tipples – I particularly enjoyed the heady bourbon concoction he rustled up for me.
Will, meanwhile, is waxing lyrical about the Hawksmoor kitchen’s slow-matured grass-fed beef, fresh from the butchering legends at the Ginger Pig. When asked to offer a quick run-down of which cut of beef comes from which bit of cow, Will beckons his manager Claudia over for a visual demonstration.
‘I’ll be the cow,’ he says, and Claudia gamely turns Will’s body into a handy meat map.
In terms of the best steak cut, Will’s a fan of ribeye, (which is apparently sourced from somewhere under his right shoulder) because ‘the fat adds flavour as it cooks’, rather than the populist fillet option (from a patch of his lower back), which is ‘more tender, but has less flavour’, but recommends that the best course of action in our quest for the perfect steak would be to share several cuts – and we’re more than happy to bow to his beefy wisdom.
Despite Hawksmoor’s indisputably steaky nature, it’s no slouch on the starter front. The scallops we order are exactly as they should be – a crispy sear on the outside and a meltingly moussey centre, and the Tamworth ribs are laced with a tangy marinade of honey and fennel seed. Delicious, of course, but the meat’s the main event.
Steak, like porn stars and 19th-century murderers, should be well hung. Thanks to their four weeks spent maturing, Hawksmoor’s fleshy, marbled slabs are rich and bloodless, thick macho hunks that any cow would be proud to leave to posterity. The menu lists rump and ribeye, fillet and sirloin, as you’d predict, but also promises chateaubriand, T-bone, even hanger, if you let the kitchen know two days beforehand. Ana, our waitress, lets slip that they’ve got a T-bone and a chateaubriand stashed away in the fridge, so we pounce on the opportunity, with a 300g fillet thrown in for good measure. You order fillet in 100g increments, so you can tailor its size to suit your appetite, whether you eat like a horse or a bird. (That’d be a carnivorous horse, and a flesh-eating bird, naturally…)
Sided with some triple-cooked chips (that’s boiled, chilled, deep-fried, chilled again and fried again, in case you don’t have Heston Blumenthal’s recipe memorised), and a smattering of token greens, our steaks are soon migrating from plate to plate as we taste-test each one. They’re cooked magnificently, in that maple-hued-outside, magenta-inside way that can only be achieved by chefs who’ve trained for decades at a Bhutanese mountainside temple (or whatever it is they do).
By the time we reach dessert (a 50s-beachfrontish selection of knickerbocker glories and, delightfully enough, jelly and ice cream) and drained the last velvety drops of Rioja (Hawksmoor’s wine list is also a force to be reckoned with), we’re convinced that our search for the perfect steak may have already come to an end. There’s no denying that Will and Huw are working from a winning formula at the Hawksmoor – jazzy cocktails, excellent wine, and implausibly good steak – so we can only hope that a) the rumours circulating that there our more branches in the pipeline are true, and b), the cows don’t run out.
So, the question is, if Hawksmoor doesn’t occupy the role of best steakhouse in London, what other restaurant might fillet? (I did warn you…)