July this year in London was out of kilter with the heat. We walked through Green Park under the plane trees towards Mayfair and the leaves cast salad-green shadows on my friend’s face. Everywhere people were seeking the shade. When we crossed the threshold of Browns’ Hotel I was reminded immediately of Laurie Lee’s description of the bars of Madrid in high summer ‘You felt as if a slice of cool lemon peel had been pressed to your forehead.’
There used to be a Hix restaurant at Browns, but now Beck occupies the same space. The décor seemed subtly different than I remembered – more decorously feminine. Olga Polizzi has softened the walls with painted palms and cosied the tables with intimate lamps. As a contrast Heinz Beck’s menu is a sleek distillation of every up market Italian eatery you think you have visited.
To start I chose burrata from Andria with seasonal vegetables. My friend ordered dressed crab with grilled cabbage and lemon dressing. Both were precise, refreshing and spectacular. Strangely, I abhor mozzarella, yet adore its sophisticated half-sister burrata. The mild, oozing cheese unified the whole dish. I particularly liked the tiny, gem-like carrots. It was a light beginning. However, my friend’s crab was the star. I had a taste and was dazzled by the sweet tingle. It recalled another of Laurie Lee’s lines, the -‘savour of half remembered seas.’
Our lunch was threaded through by a bottle of very fine Gavi. It was a delight after the series of over-blousy New World whites that I had been quaffing at the beginning of the month. The best Italian whites are always as clear as a kiss.
Once relaxed and shriven from the outside swelter we spoke of books revisited. I like to reencounter with stories out of season, so I told her that I had been looking again at Joyce’s The Dead (the great Christmas ghost story for a secular age), which she hadn’t read. I decided to hold off with the modernism motifs until I could get her a copy. She was half way through another read of North and South. She found it strange that Gaskell was out of fashion for so long but thought that the sentence structure and idioms would be difficult for the modern reader.
By now we were metaphorically miles away from the sticky streets of London. When the main courses arrived we could have been on the Amalfi coast. I had black cod with a njuda crust. My friend had sea bass with caponata. One of the sure tests of a chef is his or her skill with fish. Whoever bustles behind the scenes in the kitchen at Beck is an adept at cooking fish at that great white point of perfect balance. The spicy njuda crust on my cod was a spare background flavour. The fish peeled into moist pearly flakes. The pickled cucumbers were crisp as wishes. Her caponata was a restrained and toned down version of the punchy Sicilian vegetable stew. The sea bass had the tang of ozone. Two side dishes of spinach and truffle mash were outstanding.
The waiter had eked out our Gavi for us with great diligence, so when we came towards the end of the bottle I had a pang of lost-love regret.
I’m not usually one for desserts but my companion loves them, so I showed willing by ordering chocolate tart with raisin and rum ice cream. She chose Becks affogato tiramisu. Luckily the previous two courses were light, for my tart was dark and dense and compelling. I managed to sneak a small spoonful of her tiramisu. Again, the chef’s restraint was evident. It delivered all the coffee and cream notes but was scarcely moored to the plate, as airy as if it might drift off into the afternoon.
Our conversation turned to the Brontes versus Austen as we sat waiting for the coffee. My friend gave short shrift to my assertion that Austen was too occupied by status and money. I wasn’t worried, dazzled as I was by the long graceful lunch. They surprised us with a selection of petit fours. More glossy chocolate and liqueur essence.
The staff were some of the most understated, yet professional that I have met in recent dining experience.
There can be few better restaurants than Beck at Browns for smart Italian cooking. After a two hour sanctuary we went back into the traffic and crowds, but I half expected to see the cliffs above the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Go to Beck at Browns.
BY STEVEN O’BRIEN