db eats: Hawksmoor Air Street12th February, 2013 by Lucy Shaw
Hawksmoor Air Street purports to serve the best lobsters in London – a bold claim for a steakhouse chain that has hung its reputation on its well hung British beef.
The assertion is due to a collaboration with fish maestro Mitch Tonks of The Seahorse in Dartmouth, who has helped owners Will Beckett and Huw Gott navigate the often murky waters of sustainability, teaching them how to get the best out of the fish they cook along the way. According to Tonks, simplicity is key. The audacity of the idea that a single venue could simultaneously churn out the best steaks and lobsters in the capital had to be put to the test. I sharpened my pencil, filed my claws and headed down to Piccadilly on a snowy Wednesday night.
Once home to pretty pan-Asian restaurant Cocoon, Hawksmoor Air Street is the fourth and largest site in the Hawksmoor chain, and a sister to Spitalfields, Seven Dials and Guildhall. At 235 covers, Air Street is a behemoth – if you’re seated at the far end of the restaurant, the walk to your table alone will help you work up an appetite. And yet somehow, the long and winding space is intimate. The ceiling is low, the floor parquet and the volume loud.
Framing the emerald green booths are stunning semicircular Art Deco windows that both usher in the light and happily distort the view out onto Regent Street, their centres glinting with jade glass. There is a sense of grandeur about the space; I could imagine Poirot playing with his moustache and plotting his next move in one of the inviting emerald booths.
No trip to Hawksmoor is complete without a cocktail. Inspired by the Toper’s Timetable from 1874, the menu is divided up into a 24-hour clock, offering libations for every occasion, from bracing eye-openers to soothing nightcaps via refreshers, settlers, invigorators and rousers.
Never one to stick to the script, I went straight for an after-dinner drink within the “short, serious and strong” category – not, I must add, how I like my men. My Full Fat Old Fashioned was painstakingly crafted by infusing Bourbon with clarified butter. Served over huge ice cubes, the result is a seamlessly smooth and rich blend marrying vanilla, caramel and butterscotch into a divine but devilishly decadent drink my hips won’t thank me for.
To nibble, I ordered the fried rock oysters out of curiosity. Served in an ornate ice cream coupe, they retained their iodine essence, but were transformed into scampi-like bites by a crispy coating and chunky tartare sauce. Desperate to try the lobster but keen not to miss out on the pleasures of the flesh, I chose to start with half a Dartmouth lobster and began drooling in anticipation at the sight of its plump pink pincers and the accompanying butter boat.
Trying the flesh naked at first, to get the measure of it unadorned, dear reader, it was a thing of beauty. The meat was of such heavenly texture and rich flavour it reaffirmed my love of lobster, which had, until that point, diminished to a mere flicker of interest. When paired with the warm butter sauce it entered a new level of divinity. Juicy, sweet and soft, it was like munching on an angel’s forearm.
A tough act to follow, my 300g fillet steak put in a fine performance, its charred flesh glistening with promise, which, when cut into, revealed an indecently pink interior. With the smoky memory of charcoal lingering, the flesh was salty, juicy and tender. Sullying its purity of flavour felt criminal, but I decided to hold a taste off with generously filled boats of anchovy and Stilton hollandaise. The former triumphed.
Guardian restaurant critic Jay Rayner has talked of his desire to while away an afternoon in a hotel room with a boat of it and a consenting adult. It’s indescribably good, the anchovy complementing rather than overpowering the delicacy of the hollandaise, while the Stilton went one step too far on the flavour scale.
Part of Hawksmoor’s beauty lies in the extras, which it does so well. The triple cooked chips were golden shards of delight, their exterior all crunch and bite, and insides fluffy white. Served in a black Le Creuset dish, the macaroni cheese was creamy comfort food at its best, while a simple salad of shaved fennel and watercress offered a veneer of decency amid such filthy behaviour.
And so to pudding. The peanut butter shortbread with salted caramel ice cream has become a signature dish at Hawksmoor, and for good reason. Crafted into a parcel, its interior is stuffed with molten peanut butter and salted caramel sauce in a salty-sweet symphony that explodes on the tastebuds. Already on a sugar high, I couldn’t resist the lure of the salted caramel Rolos. Larger than the Rowntree originals, Hawksmoor’s are crafted from dark chocolate and boast beautifully gooey innards, though I’m defeated after one, leaving my last Rolo to my dining companion.
But what of the wine? Our gamine sommelier suggests we try two half glasses of white with the lobster and red with the steak, to get more bang for our buck. We begin with a Muscadet aged for a decade on its lees: Domaine du Haut Bourg Origine 2002, and a white from Enta: Graci Etna Bianco 2011, the former showing its age through a deep golden colour and subdued nose of stone fruits, while the latter was bright and alive with nettles, cut grass and citrus.
On the red front, it was a simple battle between Old and New World Cabernet with Château de Ricaud Côtes de Bordeaux Premieres 2009 going head-to-head with Stellenbosch estate Hartenberg’s Cabernet Sauvignon 2008. Rather than a clear cut case of New World power versus Old World elegance, the Bordeaux displayed the alluring ripeness and generosity of black fruit associated with the 2009 vintage, while the Hartenberg had a delicious smokiness to it, coupled with notes of maraschino cherry.
Hawksmoor isn’t cheap by any stretch of the imagination – like the steaks, they charge by the gram for the lobsters. Expect to pay top dollar to dine like a king in its clutches, but you will be richly rewarded. I arrived almost wanting to find fault in Beckett and Gott’s fourth venture in order to maintain a sense of balance. I couldn’t. They do what they do with such swagger and brilliance, there’s simply no better place in town for steak, and now lobster it seems. Save up, splash out and thank me later.
Hawksmoor Air Street, 5a Air Street, London, W1J 0AD; Tel: +44 (0)20 7406 3980.