If you can’t find something you want here, then you shouldn’t be eating out at all
This week: Mark Palmer visits The Forge, London WC2
Members of the Garrick Club have something new to look at from their upstairs drawingroom in Covent Garden. Opposite is The Forge, another outlet from the stable of Robert Siegler, who runs Le Café du Jardin in nearby Wellington Street and Le Deuxième on Long Acre.
Older members − indeed, older readers of this newspaper − may remember that 14 Garrick Street used to house a very decent restaurant in the 1970s and early 80s called Inigo Jones, named after the self-taught son of a Smithfield clothmaker who rose to become surveyor-general of the King’s Works during the reign of James I. Jones was commissioned by the Duke of Bedford to design what is now the Covent Garden Piazza to the rear of The Forge, which at one time must have been part of a church.
Some of its Gothic detail is still in place and Siegler has done a good job brightening it up while retaining its established, cosy atmosphere. The main room has a silver tin ceiling and a lot of exposed brickwork. Sea-green upholstered banquettes and chairs have a calming influence − and so do two glasses of Taittinger Champagne (£10) that arrive within a couple of minutes of being requested.
Our charming Irish waitress, however, agrees with me that the wine list is appallingly presented. It comes in a black leather folder and is 14 pages long. The wines by the glass are way back on page 12.
I can’t quite make my mind up about a white from Bordeaux and she says: “You can have a little taste before you commit, if you like.”
“What every man dreams of,” says Joanna − and we spend most of the next 90 minutes discussing the terrors and rewards of commitment.
The Forge’s menu is laid out like those you get at The Ivy and at Marco Pierre White’s band of restaurants − a single A3-size stiff card with, in this case, 19 starters at the top, seven pastas and risottos in the middle and 23 main courses below, along with no fewer than 16 side orders.
There’s everything from half a dozen Colchester oysters to eggs Benedict, as well as steak tartare, lobster, venison and chicken Kiev. If you can’t find something you want to eat here, then you shouldn’t be eating out at all.
Joanna has “sauté of tiger prawns and squid with coriander, garlic, ginger and chilli” (£9.50) and I go for the “tempura of smoked haddock with parsnip tabbouleh, pea shoots and carrot salad” (£7.50). When the food arrives, there’s a lot of tasting of each other’s choices before we commit to our own. Both look very tempting and are prettily presented.
And both turn out to be highly satisfactory. The prawns are sitting in a light dressing, along with tiny slices of red onion and grated carrot. I might have reached for the Tabasco to spice up the prawns just a smidgeon if any had been to hand, but could think of nothing that might improve my three pieces of startlingly fresh haddock cased in the thinnest of batters and rolled into circles the size of ping-pong balls.
When Joanna ordered the £25 grilled Tbone steak (aged for 28 days, according to the menu), the waitress said: “I like your style.” We took this to be a warning about the size of what was on its way. But, when the T-bone arrives (pictured above), it’s the quality, not the quantity, that takes us by surprise, so much so that we want to know where this juicy, tender flavoursome cow comes from.
Fortunately, the chef, Andy Barber (pictured) − who until recently worked at the Rex Whistler restaurant in the Tate Britain gallery − does a quick tour through the restaurant and I get a chance to ask him. He tells me that most of the beef on the menu is reared on a farm near Appleton in Oxfordshire. I like it when a chef does a fly-past, just as long as he isn’t fishing for praise too obviously. Barber doesn’t seem to be fishing at all.
I have “veal Holstein with a fried quail’s egg” (£15) as my main course. The only place I have had such good veal Holstein is the San Domenico Palace Hotel in Taormina, Sicily. It’s accompanied by capers, anchovies, parsley; and the veal has just enough Parmesan coated on it to ensure a crusty top.
We also ordered “real chips”, which strikes me as a relatively new description of fried potatoes. What it means is that the chips are thick and that you get quite a lot of potato − probably much better for you than thin chips, but nothing like as rewarding.
The after-theatre crowd (last orders at midnight) is trickling in as we scan the pudding options. There are 10 of them, all at a reasonable £6, with “British and French cheeses” at an unreasonable £2.25 per piece. After those guiltless “real chips” we decide that we deserve a plate of “sticky toffee pudding with butterscotch sauce and vanilla ice cream” − and have no regrets.
By the time we leave at 11.30, the restaurant is busier than it was earlier in the evening. I wonder how long it will be before members of the Garrick are tempted to venture across the road to sample what The Forge has to offer.
The Forge, 14 Garrick Street, (entrance on Floral Street), London WC2 (020 7379 1432). Dinner for two, including wine and service, £85.
Mark’s verdict: 7/10