There’s something very reassuring about the Square. It’s always there, for a start. Well, it always seems to have been there, just down from Berkeley Square, just up from Bond Street. To be strictly accurate, it’s been one of the outstanding landmarks of London eating for 20 years. Twenty years! That’s a lifetime in terms of restaurant longevity.
And then there’s the cut of its jib – well set-up, handsome, serious without self-importance. Although the generous interior has been discreetly and carefully modified over the years – there is a lightness to the dining room, and a thoughtful energy to the big abstract paintings on the walls – the Square has never had anything to do with the transient modalities of the London restaurant scene. From the very beginning it celebrated classic virtues, suave and highly professional in service, cultured in tone.
But perhaps most reassuring of all is that Phil Howard still spends every service in the kitchen, as he has for virtually every day of the last 20 years, and that makes him a wonder by the standards of any restaurants anywhere in the world and virtually unique in London. The only slightly depressing thing about Phil is that, aside from a slightly dusting of salt around the temples of his close-cut, curly hair, he seems unchanged from the whippet-thin, bright-eyed figure he was when he first arrived.
You might have thought that his passion and curiosity would have waned just a bit over the years, but lunch the other day proved that both burn just as brightly. Howard’s dishes have always celebrated what you might call the classic virtues of balance, harmony and proportion. They are to cooking what Palladian symmetry is to architecture. There is nothing remotely radical or revolutionary about, say, jambonette of chicken, tarte fine, salsify purée and roasting juices (off the fixed-price lunch menu), or roast loin of monkfish with pearl barley, braised lettuce and lardo di Colonnata, or lasagne of Dorset crab with cappuccino of shellfish with champagne foam.
But just as Palladio made use of contemporary developments in his designs, so a careful examination of Howard’s dishes shows a culinary intelligence that doesn’t stand still, without modifying its underlying principles – viz the soup of red mullet with smoked anchovies on toast and green olive chantilly. Savoury chantilly? Hang on, that’s not exactly one from the rulebook. But then you just know it makes perfect sense within the dish. Crushed apple with warm rum baba brought a sharp, clean acidity to bear on a baba of cloud-like lightness (it could have done with more rum, however). Salt-baked beetroot with loin of venison? Baking in salt is a technique as old as cooking, but only recently have chefs rediscovered it, and applied it to vegetables, slightly drying out their texture and intensifying the flavours. Or most remarkably of all in a dish Fosdyke had, tartare of mackerel with oyster cream, pickled cucumber, ice lettuce, smoked eel and caviar. Just through that list of elements, you can sense the sequence of textures and flavours and how they would work together. But it’s an unlisted component that transforms the dish from the wonderful to the sublime. The diced mackerel is wrapped in a translucent envelope of eel jelly that not only brings another, faintly smoky layer of flavour, but also adds a wholly unexpected and exquisite texture. This is not a dish of a chef who is content to rest on his laurels.
Waiters came and went with the silky unobtrusiveness that marks service of the highest order. Wines selected by the glass were chosen with a sense of appropriate adventure that you would never find in France, Italy, the Americas or Australia. The sense of comfort and wellbeing that comes from cosseted by civilised values enveloped not just me but clearly all the besuited figures in the room, and the few un-besuited ones as well.
Eating in the Square is like settling into the back seat of a turbo-charged Bentley. There’s the whiff of expensive leather and gleam of polished walnut, the feeling of being held firmly and gently in place. The engine idles along with quiet power, then the driver gently depresses the gas pedal and whoosh, there’s a surge of power and away we go.
The cost? Not inconsiderable, to be sure (although the fixed-price lunchtime menu is fabulous value), but as I wasn’t paying I thought it vulgar to ask. Vulgarity of any kind would never do in the Square.
The Square 6-10 Bruton Street, Mayfair, London W1J 6PU. Tel: 020 7495 7100, http://www.squarerestaurant.com