The Air Street branch is the fourth and largest venue of Hawksmoor, Will Beckett and Huw Gott’s highly successful group. This one, which unusually features a large selection of fish dishes as well as the usual steaks, opened in late 2012. The original Spitalfields branch built the reputation, based on using a high quality meat supplier and pitching a fairly priced wine list. This was followed by further, larger branches in Covent Garden and Guildhall. The Air street branch seats 235 diners at any one time, so is on a considerable scale. It takes over from what was Senkai, itself a brief and unsuccessful attempt at rebranding Cocoon. Those with longer memories may remember the site housing Bruno Loubet’s l’Odeon.
Meat comes from the well-regarded Ginger Pig, fish from Mitch Tonks, who founded the Fishworks chain. Richard Turner is the executive chef, an old soldier (literally) who has a classical culinary background working at restaurants including Le Gavroche and La Tante Claire. The menu had a quite wide selection of fish that are char-grilled, such as Dover Sole at £36, or fillet steak at £33. Starters were £7.50 for potted mackerel to £17.50 for lobster cocktail, and vegetables had a hefty supplement: triple cooked chips were extra at £4, with creamed spinach at £5. Desserts were £6.50 to £12 in price.
The wine list showed a level of seriousness that one would not expect in such a large restaurant. There were around 200 wines, ranging from £18 up to Petrus 1982 at £6,500. The median price was £65, and the average mark-up around 2.5 times the retail price, which is very fair indeed by central London standards. Example wines included Domaine du Haut Bourg, Sauvignon Blanc 2011 at £22 for a wine that you can find in the high street for a tenner, Isabel Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2011 at £45 for a wine that retails at £14, and Langoureau ‘La Garenne’ Puligny-Montrachet 2009 at £85 for a wine that will set you back around £37 in a shop. If you have the desire to splash out, then the divine Vega Sicilia Especial (2012 release) was £450 for a wine that costs £253 to buy retail, or the beautiful Salon 1996 at £650 for champagne that costs £342 in a shop. Mineral water was £3.50 a bottle.
The dining room has been converted into mock art-deco, with stained glass windows, booths with banquettes and no tablecloths. Lighting was of the gloomy variety so favoured by London restaurant managers these days. The format is pared-down, to the extent that there is not even any bread offered. Crab on toast (£10) was of good quality, some capers adding a little extra flavour, but it was sloppy to find crab shell (13/20). Lobster cocktail was nice, with tender lobster and a pleasantly spicy dressing on the salad of lettuce and cucumber (14/20). Dover sole (£36) was properly grilled and had good flavour, served on the bone (14/20). Fillet steak (£33) was cooked as ordered, perhaps a touch longer than requested, and was tender and had reasonable flavour (14/20). Vegetables were good too: triple cooked chips were reasonably crisp, winter greens were delicately cooked, and Jansson’s temptation (an onion gratin) was nicely executed (14/20 for the extras). For dessert, lemon tart had decent pastry and a nicely balanced filling, not too acidic (14/20), and sticky toffee sundae was enjoyably rich (13/20).
Service from our Lithuanian waitress was excellent: friendly, efficient and knowledgeable. The meal was fine, but then came the bill. With a mid-priced bottle of wine and two additional glasses of wine between two this came to over £127 a head. This is a huge amount of money for what is essentially decent, simple food that had been competently cooked. This to me is the big question mark over Hawksmoor: the ingredients are good, the cooking is fine, but how many people will be willing to pay this price for what is basically some nicely grilled food?