I hadn’t slept for two nights before walking from Liverpool St Station in the warm late September night to eat at the Chiswell Street Dining Rooms.
Cuisine: Classic British
Best for: Dinner after a nightmare day, good food with colleagues, a reliable place to take someone fussy, after-work drinks
Worst for: A cheap, quick bite to eat
Rating: 9/10 if you order well & don’t mind paying
Nearest tubes: Moorgate, Barbican & Old Street
The demands of work had wiped me out, and whilst I was hungry, I couldn’t have been grumpier, more impatient, and in a less tolerant mood. The name ‘Dining Rooms’ conjured up an image of school, of functionality, but also of an appealing straightforwardness. The entranceway was busy, the bar area filled with groups of mainly young people drinking and talking, an impressive array of spirits on the wall. We navigated through, and to the spacious, somewhat quieter dining area.
The gin & tonic delivered to the table was everything a first drink should be – cold, strong, and made with good gin. Only then could I begin to get my head around ordering. The menu, mercifully, is two pages long, and to the point. It isn’t fussy, and it isn’t dull: it’s modern British food. The menu doesn’t need flimsy adjectives; the choices reflect a knowledge of their own quality. I began with seared foie gras, spiced apple brioche, candied hazelnuts, and a port reduction. My guest went for ‘diver caught’ Isle of Man king scallops, with English samphire, and lemon thyme.
The scallops were delicious, fresh, and moist. They were attractively presented, and tasted beautifully of the sea, but – unless you have ethical concerns – don’t bother with them, because there’s a better choice. The foie gras arrived on the brioche, encircled by rings of the port reduction like the rings of Saturn, and tasted spectacular. The warm, almost liquid foie gras was contained within a crunchier seared surface, and went excellently with the brioche: the balance between the two was spot on. Neither too much, or too little, this dish was for me the highlight of the dinner.
Our waiter was enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and clearly very proud of the food he was serving us. He brought us glasses of Sauvignon Blanc, which he doubtless gave me the name of, but there was the first mouthful of foie gras going on, and frankly anything else could have been happening, I wouldn’t have caught it.
I followed up with roast lamb, which came with lemon courgettes, potato gratin, and a rosemary jus. My guest went for grilled Cornish lemon sole, with dill butter, and tenderstem broccoli. If I’d scored in the opening moments with the choice for first course, my guest equalised before the break with the sole. The cooking of the lamb was well judged, and the courgettes had a lovely bite to them, but the block of potato gratin was unexciting. I made the mistake of ordering a pea & bacon side dish, which was a bit too school-dinnerlike, and I had to sit in envy and watch my guest enjoy the sole, which from the taste I was allowed was terrific. It was light, buttery, and was not over-flavoured: the sole was allowed to be itself, and the quality of the product again – as with the scallops – shone through. I drank Château La Fleur Coterie Bordeaux, again chosen by our waiter, which did a good job alongside the lamb of leaving me feeling well fed.
I leaned back in the chair, and feeling much more awake than when I stepped in, I looked around me. The Chiswell Street Dining Rooms is light, spacious, and looks like a trendier version of an Oxbridge Fellows’ Parlour, without the artwork. The walls are panelled and seemed to be sea-grey in colour, the chairs a muted lime green. Stylistically, it reminded me of Thomas Alfredson’s film of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It’s the sort of place Control and Smiley might have gone on expenses. Like the food – there’s nothing contrived about it. The lack of art was one of three minor bugbears I had with the place. It could have done with some more art, just to break up the grey panelling. The second is that the bread delivered to our table was white and boring. The third bugbear is an idiosyncratic one: I hate music in bars and restaurants. My guest didn’t even notice the music until I pointed out to her, it is innocuous enough, it might contribute to the atmosphere on a Friday night, but it is utterly unnecessary.
In a best of three contest, the pudding was where I took back the early advantage and sealed the game. My guest’s summer pudding, with gooseberry and apple parfait was perfectly decent, and she said it was good. I had a bit, but I couldn’t really say it did anything for me. Channelling the ‘school dining room’ preconception, I went for sticky toffee pudding. This came with a big ball of salted peanut ice cream in a sugar basket, and was just great. I am a fan of ice cream, I eat it whenever it’s on offer, and this was good ice cream. No twists, no tricks, it was nutty, salty, creamy, and counterbalanced the sticky toffee pudding perfectly.
I left the Chiswell Street Dining Rooms a happy man. The sensation of the first course had overcome my exhaustion, and the atmosphere had mollified me. If I’d seen the cocktail list before I got there, I’d have arrived earlier, because it looks cracking. The menu was autumnal, and restorative. The Chiswell Street Dining Rooms have the elusive aura of authenticity about them. Dinner there is not a functional experience, it is a rare charm.
Rupert Myers is a barrister at East Anglian chambers