Charlie's At Brown's Hotel
by Nick Harman - Thursday February 6, 2020 12:02 pm
Albemarle Street, Mayfair, London, W1S 4BP. www.roccofortehotels.com
Good Grief, Charlie's at Brown's, you’re not cheap but you are rather wonderful.
It was all rather exciting; the clunk and rattle of the approaching trolley as it navigated its way between tables, the labouring waiter trying to make progress against the resistance of the deep pile carpet and the heightened expectation as it finally arrived.
I think the waiters rather enjoyed it too, it was more interesting than ferrying plates from pass to table, going away and carefully waiting until a diner was at the climax of a fascinating anecdote, or had a mouthful of food, before popping back to ask ‘is everything alright?’
Here in Charlie’s at Browns, the trolley gets a fair bit of action. To our right a table is having its roast chicken carved and served tableside, while in our little corner J’s smoked Moxon salmon is being expertly sliced from a whole side and laid prettily onto a plate.
Apparently, they do a mean steak tartare as well, one of the classic dishes to be dished at table.
Charlie comes from Charles Forte, and not the friend of Snoopy, and Brown’s is above all a quintessentially British place; most of the clientele seem well-heeled in an old money way, and to have been preserved in aspic since well before the war.
Not that there aren’t a lot of new money types here as well; one glamorous woman is juggling three mobile phones between mouthfuls and quietly barking orders into each of them.
As I wait for J’s plate to be perfected, I look around and I realise I like it here; the wood panelling offset by the designs commissioned by Olga Palozzi, the gliding waiters, the fact that I am sure the elderly gentlemen across the way is either an actor or an MP.
With the arrival of J’s plate, and with his dithering selection of garnishes over, my dish arrives and is possibly the least British thing on the menu, Cacio e Pepe. Although it does have truffles on top, apparently sourced in the UK.
It is superb, a simple dish of pasta, pepper, cheese and butter, it has everything right. The pasta, home-made we are told, is just the right thickness and perfectly cooked.
The butter coats the pasta but doesn’t drown it and the pepper is perfectly judged. A twist more or less would have lowered the dish down to merely excellent.
The truffles are generous, so thinly sliced they threaten to float up and away on the rising warm air from the plate. Not the finest of truffles, but they do add the right air of luxury to what was originally just a peasant dish.
J thinks his smoked salmon is very good, delicately smoked so as to not overcome the natural curing flavours, and he is inordinately pleased with having his lemon encased in muslin, but has some dish envy when he sees what I have ordered. Well that’s his mistake.
We are both a little down on meat right now, the only meat I eat at home is charcuterie, Greta could threaten me at gunpoint, her curious eyes staring balefully at me down the barrel, and I’d still not change my ways. So,John Dory for me then.
An odd fish - almost as ugly as a monkfish but equally delicious. A firm fish that has few bones, I hate bony fish, I could never understand why the Queen Mother persisted in eating them, even though they so often brought her close to early and final retirement.
Here it comes in thick slices decorated with juicy large clams, palourdes if you’re French mon ami.
It’s been baked in a seaweed butter which has ensured it’s moist, and the seaweed has seeped into the flesh to add extra flavour. The butter has pooled luxuriously under the fish where the escaping clam juices have added a briny kick, as well as some grit unfortunately.
The menu mentioned chili, but I detect none. This may be down to my taste buds having grown accustomed to the fiercest of chillis.
On top is samphire, one of my favourite veg - a salty, snappy, delight. It all holds together very well, freshness jumps of the plate and a simple accompaniment of new potatoes and squeaky French beans works just right.
The lunch set main caught J’s eye, fried fillets of lemon sole on a warm tartare sauce with monk’s beard. What turned up at table had more than enough tartare sauce, although in my opinion you can never have too much. I always fill my pockets with those free sachets they have in the basket in the somewhat lower quality restaurants.
Obviously this was not a shop bought sauce; far far better, sharp and crispy and zingy. It helped cut what he thought was a bit too much coating on the fish which threatened its subtle flavour. Still, a bit of a classic dish that comforted.
And what better comfort dessert than a Tart Tatin with apricot and apple brandy ice cream? It could have been a tad hotter, but that’s the only complaint I could make with my mouth full. Decadently sticky and rich, and I don’t mean the MP/actor across the room.
Obviously not as sticky as J’s date sticky toffee pudding with malted milk ice cream. So black it seemed to suck the light out of the room, this was British dessert at its most Empire like, even if the dish only really came to prominence in the gastro pub boom.
J pushed away his empty plate with the contented sigh of someone who had no particular place to be for the rest of the afternoon, and patted his somewhat distended stomach affectionately.
‘Pub, old chap?’ he asked hopefully. ‘Pub,’ I replied.