Where the world truly your oys­ter

The Mail on Sunday - Event - - FOOD -

These are strange, un­cer­tain times. Which means that now, more than ever, we crave com­fort, suc­cour and good cheer, places that are as stead­fastly re­li­able as the ris­ing and set­ting of the sun. Places you can set your watch by. Places as far re­moved from the po­lit­i­cal hash and hodge­podge as could pos­si­bly be. Places like Bent­ley’s, that be­calmed West End crus­tacean oa­sis, that blessed bi­valve par­adise.

I can’t be­gin to count the times that I’ve perched at the bar and scoffed oys­ters by the dozen, washed down with the coolest and crispest of white wines. Any trou­bles or wor­ries melt away like but­ter in a sear­ing pan. It’s the sim­plic­ity I crave, the ab­so­lute de­vo­tion to the very finest our seas have to of­fer. No fuss, non­sense or lawk­ing about, just split ’em open and serve ’em up. Car­ling­fords, West Mersea, Colch­ester, Me­nai, Loch Ryan and Gal­way. It’s like an oys­ter hall of fame. And no one, not even Wil­ton’s, treats these beasts with such re­spect. For they’re not sim­ply shucked, but cut from the shell, and flipped too, which means all the ador­ing punter need do is tip and slurp.

A drib­ble of lemon, a drop of Tabasco, a dash of vine­gar with shal­lot. I love the na­tives with all my heart, sub­tle, mus­cu­lar and sweet. But times are hard for these flat­shelled beau­ties, and all is not well in their sandy beds. Pro­duc­tion is lim­ited, cul­ti­va­tion hard and disease rife. Not a catas­tro­phe yet (and Bent­ley’s take their sus­tain­abil­ity very seriously in­deed), but stocks are run­ning low. Which means they’re a rare treat, and an ad­dic­tion to be tem­pered. Not so oner­ous a task, see­ing the sheer qual­ity and va­ri­ety of the rocks. Oys­ters here are bought at source, di­rectly from the oys­ter­men. And the menu changes ac­cord­ing to what is at its best. But it’s not just oys­ters. There are fat Dorset clams, firm, mus­cu­lar and fan­tas­tic. And crab, al­ways fresh­boiled and picked that morn­ing – Cromer crabs, with the very sweet­est of flesh. Slathered with fresh may­on­naise and piled high on Lon­don’s finest soda bread, it’s tes­ta­ment to the sim­plic­ity of true bril­liance. Take the best in­gre­di­ents, lav­ish them with a love verg­ing on de­vo­tion, and let them shine. If your tastes err to­wards the cooked there’s al­ways a fine fish pie, or del­i­cate crab and mus­sel broth, or pert Dover sole, or a lin­guine von­gole that could hold its head high in Naples.

Chef pro­pri­etor Richard Cor­ri­gan, the man be­hind it all, is a broad, bar­rel­chested, grin­ning force of na­ture. Not a man you’d get on the wrong side of, but one of Europe’s great chefs, no doubt about that. I first tasted his food at Lind­say House in Soho. And never for­got it. His tech­nique was flaw­less, flavours al­ways broad, but never brash. He’s cer­tainly not shy of speak­ing his mind, or pick­ing a fight with the big beasts of com­mer­cial agri­cul­ture. But he eter­nally fights for the small pro­ducer, the ar­ti­sans, the farm­ers who work for pas­sion rather than profit. Flavour al­ways comes first.

And he has a gen­eros­ity of spirit that flows like a rag­ing tor­rent through ev­ery­thing he does. In fact, I had to make sure he wasn’t about when I vis­ited for this re­view. As you have to fight to ac­tu­ally pay. Bent­ley’s may have a long his­tory, but it’s Cor­ri­gan who made it great.

There are so few res­tau­rants you can rely upon, time af­ter time. St John is one, The Guinea Grill an­other. Bent­ley’s too, of course. It’s the sort of place you can take any­one, from mother and fa­ther to friends, tourists and chil­dren. Bet­ter still, go on your own. Take a book, and a seat at the bar, and es­cape.

What­ever the ail­ment, Bent­ley’s makes it bet­ter. About £40 per head

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