1 February 2011

Hawksmoor (Seven Dials), London – Restaurant Review

Meat and fire have such primal appeals about them. Oh, how the first human to grill their woolly mammoth must have wept at that first bite of charred heaven. I mean is there anything better than great big slabs of Flintstone-sized beef seared over an open flame and washed down with some red Burgundy? Fire. Flesh. Wine. It's almost biblical! So when I set about organising a boys' night out with five of my dearest friends, it seemed appropriate to come to the church of carnivores that is Hawksmoor and worship at its altar of all things meat.

The original Hawksmoor opened in London's Shoreditch in 2006 and rapidly built up a fanatical following due to its sublime steaks and eclectic cocktails. This restaurant is the second venture of restaurateurs Will Beckett and Huw Gottby, and opened in late 2010 in the old Combe brewery in the heart of Covent Garden. It continues in the same vein as the original, offering an almost identical menu, but on a larger and slightly more polished scale.

On entering through the heavy double doors, I descended the steps to the underground bar passing a playful "Beef and Liberty" sign on my way – presumably a relic of London's legendary steak club, the Sublime Society of Beef Steaks, which was active in the 18th and 19th centuries, and from which Hawksmoor takes inspiration. I'm not a fan of subterranean dining spaces, the lack of windows usually make me feel like I'm in some sort of claustrophobic bunker, and the low-slung ceiling and dim lighting of the bar area here didn't help matters either. However, the main restaurant was cavernous enough, with a vaulted brick ceiling and beautiful parquet flooring adding to its charm.

As I was among the first to arrive, I took a seat at the bar to wait for the others. The bar menu here is quite an extensive affair, listing some classic and fantastically quirky cocktails, with names like 'Alamagoozlum' and 'Johnny-from-London'. I shouldn't have been surprised by the quality of the drinks as the bar is run by 'Shaky' Pete Jeary, one of London's best mixologists, and is definitely worth a visit in its own right. I ordered a 'Tobacco Old Fashioned', which is made with Hawksmoor's own tobacco-infused bitters, and was one of the finest examples I have tasted. My friend's 'Hawksmoor Fizz' was a cooling and zesty mix of gin, lemon, cream, orange flower water, and egg white. Both drinks were made with extreme precision, and we watched in awe as the barman carefully and methodically created our cocktails.

Once the rest of our group arrived, we were shown to our table in the adjoining dining room and presented with menus. Obviously, steaks would be the order of the day, and the available cuts and weights are chalked up on blackboards around the dining room. Given the amount of meat we planned on ordering, we somewhat hesitantly chose a selection of starters to share.

Half a dozen Cumbrae rock oysters, served with their briny juices intact and traditional mignonette sauce on the side.
Grilled Poole clams with bacon came served with a wedge of dense bread, perfect for soaking up the delicious juices.
Roasted bone marrow and slow-cooked onions were smeared over grilled bread and greedily wolfed down. A little went a long way though as the bone marrow was impossibly rich and creamy with a deep beefy taste.
We also ordered some Tamworth pork belly ribs. These had been slow cooked to a state of melting softness. By far the best of the starters, they disappeared instantly. So quickly, in fact, that I didn't even have time to take a snapshot of them. We had also been tempted by the Dorset blue lobster with hazelnut butter, but surprisingly the restaurant had already run out of lobster, even though it hadn't yet gone 8pm.

And so, on to the main courses. Although I have heard good things about the burgers at Hawksmoor (it seems no review of Hawksmoor is complete without a mention of their infamous kimchi burger), it was vast quantities of red meat we were craving. Unlike at London rival Goodman, the steaks at Hawksmoor all come from a single breed – grass-fed Longhorn cattle reared in North Yorkshire by The Ginger Pig – and are dry aged for at least 35 days. They are then grilled to perfection on a fiercely hot charcoal grill. Your choice is simply one of cut and weight.

I'm a sucker for Porterhouse steak – with a combination of succulent sirloin and tender fillet, they are a meat lover's dream cut, and we ordered 900g versions of this steak (medium-rare, naturally) to share in pairs. They arrived in cast iron skillets; handily pre-cut to make sharing easier. We also ordered some sauces on the side and managed to select from most of what the restaurant offers: Béarnaise, peppercorn, Stilton hollandaise, and bone marrow gravy. Sides of beef dripping chips, triple cooked chips, roast field mushrooms, and creamed spinach were the token vegetables in this veritable meat feast.
The steaks arrived beautifully cooked and well rested, with pleasing thin seams of creamy yellow fat running through them. The surface of the meat had a mouth-watering char to it that tasted every bit as good as it looked with an intensely savoury smokiness to it. The tender beef had a remarkable depth of flavour and an almost sweet mineral taste that only grass-fed cows can produce. A touch more salt was needed to lift the flavour, but that's to be expected, as it's difficult for the seasoning to permeate through a cut this thick. The side dishes were good too, although I couldn't really discern much difference between the beef dripping chips and the triple cooked chips. The only disappointment was the Béarnaise sauce, which didn't have enough acidity or tarragon and was far too creamy as a result. Goodman's version, in contrast, is a real joy.
Please spare a thought for my dear friend though. Such is his love of meat that he dispatched the waitress to find him his own personal cut of Porterhouse, the bigger the better. The end result was a 1.1kg behemoth that sat on his plate like some obscure anatomical specimen. To his (dis)credit, he finished the lot, leaving a huge T-shaped bone that looked like it had been bleached clean. He then spent the rest of the evening fending off incessant meat sweats. Maybe not quite as impressive as these two, but remember, my friend had already had starters too!
Desserts were a bit of hazy blur to be honest, as by this stage we'd had more than a skinfull. I seemed to have ordered a powerfully alcoholic jelly and cream number that wasn't very pleasant at all. A caramel and peanut thing was much better though, the ice cream in particular being luxuriously smooth and rich.
Throughout the meal we drank a truly stunning 2005 Vosne-Romanée. Packed with red fruit, it had a heavenly flavour and a fantastic sense of vitality. With our puddings we couldn't resist the allure of a 1998 Château d'Yquem – the nectar of the gods – which was sipped in near silence. Extraordinary!


After dinner, we gingerly took our meat-laden bellies back to the bar for some more drinks. There, we noticed a gruesome sounding "Zombie" cocktail, containing three different kinds of rum, grenadine, grapefruit, and lime, with a hefty slug of absinthe thrown in for good measure. Somewhat ominously, this drink came with a limit of one per person. Intrigued, we asked the waitress what it was like; "it's a good beginning to the end of the night" came her reply. We ordered two. Five minutes later, a couple of glass goblets the size of melons arrived. After that I don't remember too much to be honest, other than the bill being brought out, which came in just north of a rather sobering £1,600 between the six of us. Oh, and I may or may not have tried to hire a bicycle rickshaw to take me back home to Battersea, a 4 mile trek away.
Hawksmoor Seven Dials is a really fantastic addition to London's dining scene. I love the bar, I love the bustling, raucous dining room, and I love the super-friendly service, and of course the steaks are good enough to satisfy the most demanding of meat lovers. It's a perfect place for hanging out and laughing with a bunch of friends over good food and wine. As far as the steaks go, though, I think Goodman still has the edge, mainly due to the variety of beef they offer and their slightly better execution, but these two restaurants are probably the best steak houses in the capital at the moment and both are operating at a very high standard indeed.

So, Hawksmoor: Meat. Fire. Wine. What more is there to say? Just go!

Food:        7 / 10
Service:     8 / 10
Ambiance: 8 / 10

Hawksmoor (Seven Dials)
11 Langley Street
London WC2H 9JG
United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0)20 7856 2154
Hawksmoor (Seven Dials) on Urbanspoon
Square Meal