‘Lead, kindly light, amidst the encircling gloom, lead thou me on,’ goes the hymn. If ever there were a kindly culinary light, it’s Jeremy Lee, tall, genial, eyes beaming and sparkling behind gig-lamps, generous in mood and manner and on the plate.
For the last couple of centuries Jeremy has been keeping the Blue Print Café as a lonely outpost of culinary excellence in Shad Thames, hard by London Bridge, in much the same way that certain remote colonies of the Roman Empire marked the edge of the civilised world. Of course, it would be a monstrous exaggeration to suggest that beyond Bermondsey lies chaos and barbarism, but it was still a long way to go for food of even Mr Lee’s quality. So the news that he has relocated to Quo Vadis, the Hart brother’s snazzy establishment in Soho has bee greeted with enthusiasm and relief by his many admirers, among with I count myself.
He represents an almost forgotten line of British cooking that you can trace back to George Perry-Smith, Jane Grigson, and beyond. There may be references to other European culinary traditions in some dishes, but his food remains British in essence. It has a certain jolly catholicity combined with merry rectitude. It focuses on the character of the principal ingredient with clarity. He sources his primary materials with enthusiastic discrimination, and then he treats them with rare respect. He trusts his ingredients, and knows, as few chefs actually do, when to leave alone. Not for him unnecessary gewgaws on the plate. Not for him water baths and, foams, gels, one food masquerading as another and the other furbelows of 21st Century cookery.
I can’t say that lunch at Quo Vadis held many surprises for me. It didn’t, thank heavens, beyond the changes to the dining room itself, from which all froufrou has been rigorously purged, to the point of austerity. I rather wished that the brilliants colours of the oranges and lemons I found Mr Lee arranging in the entrance to the restaurant, could be redeployed to the dining room in place of the rather fustian heather, presumably a reference to Mr Lee’s Scottish roots
But there was colour enough when the food started arranging – baked salsify & parmesan; bloater paste; salt mallard & pickled prunes; two terrines; teal, bacon and prune; leg of middlewhite pork with braised beans and green sauce; beef with horseradish, watercress and a pommes Anna. The bloater paste was a creamy cloud of fishing smokiness; the delicate, fresh, celery-and-parsley root freshness of the salsify held it’s own inside a crisp cheesy jacket; salted mallard the same broad-bottomed mildness of the more usual domestic duck, but with a bit more oomph of the wild bird, with the pickled prunes to provide gastronomic counterpoint. Prunes turned up again tucked inside a teal, nature’s perfect portion control, roasted with the kind of precision you associate with advanced computerisation. There was curiously little fat on the slices of middlewhite pork, but there was favour to savour, released by proper chewing. The soft, earthy beans bathed in a perky, airy green sauce. The only criticism came from my discerning companion, Frobisher, who commented that his beef, while being properly rare, lacked the meaty pep he wanted. An orange, fennel and Campari sorbet provided a fresh and healthy ping, leaving mouth and mind clear and refreshed.
The bill was £73 . The fact neither Frobisher nor I was drinking helped keep it down, but this is almost risibly small for food of this class. That ‘s down to Jeremy Lee’s pricing policy – £6 for two terrines, £6 for the salt mallard & pickled prunes, not a main course above £16.50, unless you count the rib of beef at £45 for 2; a set price Theatre Menu of £17.50 for 2 courses, £20 for 3. It’ll be interesting to see whether they stay at this credit crunching level. In the meantime, dash along and feast while you can.
29 Dean Street, London W1D 3LL)
Tel: 020 7437 9585
(Incidentally, Cardinal John Henry Newman wrote the hymn from which the lines above are taken after the ship, on which he was sailing from Naples to Sicily, was engulfed by a furious storm and was guided to the safe haven of Messina harbour by a kindly lighthouse. There you go.)