Memories of meals gone by are on Alex Rushmer’s mind this month, as he reminisces on his favourite dining experiences pre- and during Covid
Several decades ago (or ‘February’ as it used to be known) my wife and I went for lunch. We dressed nicely and took the train to King’s Cross. From there we ambled through drizzle to Claridge’s and spent several hours eating, drinking and being looked after in the opulent comfort of Davies & Brook, Daniel Humm’s first restaurant outside of New York. Although the writing was on the wall, few – if any – of us had bothered to try reading it and three weeks later, when every restaurant in the country was ordered to close, our luxurious lunch took on an even more gilded glow.
Even if life had continued unaltered, it would have been remembered as a remarkable meal, a truly awesome experience from a new restaurant already operating at the very top of its game. We had cocktails and the full seven-course menu. Butternut squash and caviar. Celeriac whittled into a perfect ping-ping ball sized sphere and covered in a rich truffle sauce. Dry-aged duck roasted with spices. An exquisite doughnut filled with apple and cinnamon. Baked Tunworth cheese with truffle honey. A tour of the kitchen and a bag of granola to takeaway for breakfast the following day. From there to Soho and cocktails in Quo Vadis before a show. Lunch. Cocktails. The West End. Busy streets, restaurants and bars and glorious theatre.
Even if life had continued unaltered, it would have been remembered as a remarkable meal, a truly awesome experience from a new restaurant already operating at the very top of its game
Days later these experiences became precious trinkets and I’ve wrapped them up as carefully as I can, desperately trying to keep them safe until the day when I don’t need them quite so much. Since then there has been little, if anything, to equal the experiences of that day in late February. Admittedly, it was a high bar: even in a non-pandemic year it would have been difficult to surpass. Humm’s New York outpost, Eleven Madison Park, was named the World’s Best Restaurant in 2017 which, no matter what you may think of potentially spurious lists that rank the subjective, is still a fearsome achievement and his London opening was always going to be an experience worth saving up for. But given everything that followed, that lunch will always be remembered with an added lustre.
Recently, though, there have been a few beacons of hope, a smattering of edible artefacts that have added a much-needed layer of padding to that single glorious memory: fiery, crispy, Tennessee-style Dot’s Hot Chicken from the clever folk at Steak & Honour. Sweet octopus and jamon croquettas with a glass of fino at Mercado Central. A sensational charred dab, cooked whole over charcoal and served with rosemary at Parker’s Tavern. All little reminders that one day, this too shall pass.
The very best meal I have eaten since then, though came as a surprise. Three weeks ago, my wife temporarily relocated to St. Leonards-on-Sea to look after her postoperative uncle. I drove down early on Sunday and will be returning to Cambridge with both her and the whippet in a day or so, but not before a few lungfuls of fresh coastal air and bracing walks along the shore. Last night she cooked: roast chicken and potatoes, cauliflower cheese and broccoli. We ate with plates balanced on our laps watching something inane on the television. The closest thing to a tablecloth was a blanket the dog was curled up in, the corner of which was draped over my knee. For dessert apple strudel from the freezer and custard from a tin. It was the first time anyone has cooked for me in months and it was perfect in every way. It filled the belly, warmed the soul and reminded me more than anything that we will need both the floodlit memories of glorious meals past as well as the tiny, simple moments of candlelit happiness in order to successfully navigate our way through this winter.