This article is also published in the Financial Times.
Restaurants now flourish in many buildings that were once far less joyful environments: former banks, station ticketing halls, post offices and even the odd supermarket.
But upstanding British citizens will be delighted to know that the opening of Spring restaurant in the newly refurbished New Wing of Somerset House by the Hungerford Bridge marks not just the re-emergence of Australian-born chef Skye Gyngell, for nine years the culinary inspiration of Petersham Nurseries in Richmond, but also the closure of a room where for over a century decisions were taken that adversely affected us all. This room was originally built to house the executive board of HM Customs and Excise. (This photo of Skye is taken from the Spring website.)
Thanks to the forbearance, good taste and, perhaps above all, the deep pockets of a Hong Kong Chinese backer who prefers to remain anonymous, the long redevelopment of this imposing space has been undertaken with great sensitivity to reveal, with only one major area of concern, a style of restaurant that London has not seen for many a year.
The corridor that leads from Hungerford Bridge to the magnificent courtyard of Somerset House now has a real Parisian feel to it with its stylish tables and chairs making a chic place to meet at lunch or early evening. Immediately inside is a small conservatory room that will make a great venue for a private dinner for up to 24.
The main room has been stripped back to its original imposing interior and thanks to what must have been gallons of white paint and the large windows on three sides is an absolute pleasure to sit in, particularly on a sunny day. The only major fixtures in the room now are a long marble bar at the far end and an equally long wooden service counter with its vast green floral display.
It is behind this that Gyngell, dressed in her whites, scurries along, can be spotted reaching over to shake hands with customers, whispering to her staff and assuming the role of the clucking, caring Mother Hen that to date in London has been the prerogative of Ruth Rogers at the River Café and Sally Clarke at Clarke’s.
What Gyngell looks out on is distinguished almost as much by what has consciously been omitted as by what’s there. There is space between the tables, as well as three elegant booths in the alcoves of the windows. There are extremely comfortable brown leather chairs, on which a jacket can be hung without it immediately falling to the floor. The lighting is flattering. And, with the added bonus of no music, the acoustics are excellent. Also absent from the menu are sharing plates, carbohydrates and that sneaky cover charge.
Instead, however, there are the most ridiculous waiters’ outfits. Baggy white trousers, different coloured tops of differing sleeve length to distinguish rank, and different coloured ribbons on the waistcoats that do not hide an untidy waistline. This ‘design’ involves so many complex combinations that I learnt that there has to be a separate spread sheet in the office just to master it. The skirts for the manageresses manage to make them look like frumpy schoolmistresses. These costumes, I discovered, were designed by the notoriously expensive Egg of Knightsbridge and I cannot help feeling that without them, each item on the menu might have been 50p to £1 less.
But this may explain why the other person having as much fun as Gyngell in the room is sommelier Frank Embleton, who, because he is a manager, arrived at our table in civvies. He was beaming with enthusiasm, justifiably, because he has put together a really fascinating wine list whose highlights include a fino sherry and a sweet Moscatel from César Florido in Jerez (£6 a glass each, and such has been the response to the latter that he has sold three cases of the Moscatel in the first three weeks); house wines Catarratto from Sicily and Dolcetto from Piedmont at £5 a glass each; as well as bottles of such rarities as a varietal Timorasso (£49) from Italy (£49) and Gaia’s Thalassitis Assyrtiko 2013 from Santorini (£43). Embleton also takes advantage of the unusual spaciousness of the room by pouring even the least expensive white wine by the glass from an expensive swan-necked decanter.
And Embleton has a cracking menu to play to. With female intuition, Gyngell has written a concise menu that gives equal prominence to both sides of every dish so scanning down the right-hand side generates as much potential pleasure as choosing the main ingredient. There is romesco, that alluring blend of almonds, pine nuts, garlic and peppers; seaweed butter; a luscious beurre blanc; a cumin salsa verde; and a Café de Paris butter full of herbs.
Each of these is sensitively matched. The beurre blanc with griddled scallops; finely diced red chillies with grilled squid; Fern Valley leeks in the classic combination with the romesco; and the seaweed butter under two langoustines split down the middle and cooked so that their sweet flesh just popped out of its shell. Only a chimichurri sauce with a couple of roast quail lacked the requisite oomph, but there was compensation in the form of a stunning dessert of a buttermilk panna cotta with damsons and wood sorrel.
Spring Somerset House, Lancaster Place, London WC2R 1LA; tel +44 (0)20 3011 0115