Christopher Jackson reviews a fine restaurant in dry January, where the food is so good you’ll not need wine
It’s one of the great mysteries of life that precisely at the moment when life is least fun, human beings take it as a signal to make it even less so. In January the world is full of people who seriously think they will prolong their lives if they wave away drinks for 31 days, as a precursor to having more of them in the following three hundred.
I say this as someone who sometimes partakes in it himself: so that it was a sober food reviewer – and one who knew that, barring some surprise lapse, he would remain sober – who navigated the courtyards and building works of Somerset House to make it down to Bryn William’s new offering overlooking the river.
Sober as I was, an onlooker might have inferred a certain drunkenness from the way in which I had difficulty finding the place. After numerous farcical wrong turnings, I arrived late to find my companion sitting at the table, and already noting with a poet’s alertness to detail, that the cushions were too big for the benches.
And indeed, it is a quirk of the window-side booths that one has to sit forward at a quarter-buttocked perch, as if waiting for someone to finish a long story while about to leave. Happily, this was to be our last serious criticism – and accordingly we didn’t leave for some three hours.
For my starter, eager to add to the virtuousness of sobriety the virtuousness of vegetable consumption, I opted for the celeriac soup, which came with poached egg and truffle. This was an inevitable choice. Celeriac remains to me a sort of underrated concept album of a vegetable, and greatly delicious. And I continue to feel that there is something strangely decadent about egg in soup, which may have to do with the thickening effects of the yoke, yellow spreading through the green like a disappearing sunset.
The view from the restaurant is poetic: one can lament a bit that the river isn’t as near as it might be. It feels flung far down – and very different, say, from the Seine, where one can note in more intimate detail the particular flow of the water, and the crinkle the wind makes on the tides. The river used to be wider – Venetian perhaps in the way it used to sweep up to the steps of Somerset House.
But there was no time to lament the heresies of Victorian planning. Specifically there was food to eat; and conversation to be had. As we moved onto our mains, we were reminded again that this is a place where vegetable is king – a healthy place for health-aspirational times. Williams – arguably Wales’ premier chef – argues in capital letters on the restaurant’s website that ‘a piece of fruit or veg should be treated with the same amount of care and respect as a cut of meat or fillet of fish.’
It would be odd if he were wrong about this: we are meant to eat everything in front of us, after all, and to argue to the contrary would be like saying that rhythm matters less than melody in a song, when obviously both are vital.
Even so, the next course showed how far meticulous attention to detail can take you. I opted for the black bream, salt cod beignet, artichoke purée, and wild mushroom. It was a magnificent dish – a wise dance of flavours – and just right portion-wise. For the first time in my restaurant reviewing life, I washed it all down with still water.
For dessert, we both decided on the lavender meringue, with lemon posset and lavender and blueberry ice-cream. Since I have a special liking for the temperature contrast of warm drinks with ice cream, I ordered a peppermint tea which pooled into the mouth in lovely cancellation of the pudding’s chill.
We took our time over it all, enjoying the lazy one-third-full ambience of a not-yet-sufficiently-known restaurant. We found time to wonder whether the paintings could be more exciting – they look like one of those rooms of Dutch still lives at the National Gallery that you walk through looking for Vermeers. But Bryn Williams at Somerset House is the sort of place that can engender niggles, but not serious gripes. And what it might lack for the time being in buzz it more than makes up for in food that sings – wine or no wine.
Christopher Jackson is deputy editor of Spear’s
Image credit: Steven Joyce