An English Steakhouse on London’s South Bank: Araminta Power reviews Gillray’s at Marriott County Hall
The old GLC must have been enormous. County Hall, its erstwhile home, occupies a huge stretch of the south bank of the Thames and with its steeply pitched tiled roof, pilasters, porthole windows and grand entrance facing the water, it’s a pretty impressive pile. It now houses the Aquarium, Shrek’s Adventure, the London Dungeon and, in complete contrast, the quietly elegant 5* London Marriott Hotel County Hall, one of my favourite London hotels.
It’s very discreetly positioned is the Marriott. You wouldn’t know, walking across Westminster Bridge that it was there. But somehow it has been tucked in among the building’s folds, both respectful of and comfortable within its imposing, polished and panelled corridors and represents a moment of calm and – dare I say it – taste, away from the hectic crowds outside.
But perhaps its discreet presence is not always in its best interests. It’s only five minutes from Westminster or Waterloo, but I spoke to a few ladies, with bosses in the Houses of Parliament and other offices across the water and none of them had thought of booking Gillray’s, the Marriott’s in-house steakhouse.
It was Laura, who works about 10 minutes away, who joined me. She was already waiting at our table, being entertained by a 12-year old waiter, when I was ushered in. He wasn’t really 12, but was young enough still to have braces on his teeth and had such a smooth and cherubic face, we both instantly wanted to mother him. Having said that, he was very knowledgeable about the restaurant, the menu, the wine list and had a very funny line in anecdotes. We both laughed out loud at the one about the table of seven vegans – “coming to a steakhouse” he snorted, with a mixture of disgust and mystification.
Over our glasses of Chapel Down English sparkling wine, Laura talked about the problem of finding new places to send the Boss: “I need to know key things about a venue, so coming here personally is really useful, seeing exactly where it is for example. My boss wouldn’t want to be wandering around trying to find the place; it’s me she’d complain to saying it took ages to find.”
We ordered our food. Three plump scallops for Laura, lined up in a row on a smear of bright green pea puree and topped with bacon jam, which bubbled like lava, fragrant and olive-coloured. “Lovely” said Laura.
The asparagus and roasted garlic soup was one of those dishes that make me swoon slightly, the delicate green flavour of the asparagus suddenly bombed by heady explosions of roasted garlic, lovely large lumps of it. I wish I were a poet and could write an ode to roasted garlic.
As the cherub said, Gillray’s is a steakhouse and it was steak that Laura went for, the “ladies fillet” from a comprehensive selection. “It’s a very simple meal, really”, she said. “Steak, mashed potato, salad. But you’ve got to get it right – and they have.”
My hake was fine. It’s quite a meaty fish once cooked but in a way it was the least interesting in a plateful of quite exciting flavours. It came with heritage tomato puree, which initially seemed to me a bit of waste of expensive fruit, but actually was rich and velvety and slightly sweet – quite gorgeous – and a potato “terrine” with bacon, a hearty contrast. A small dish of kale with chilli and garlic, created another nice little side road of flavour to wander down.
The restaurant slinks along one side of the building, the tables following the curves and window embrasures, offering fine views across the water to the Houses of Parliament and nearer, the London Eye. The windows are huge, and as we talked, we looked out at the river, lights looping across it and the red-lit ribs of the London Eye. Pudding arrived: three generous balls of salted caramel ice cream for Laura and “deconstructed” (the cherub’s word, not mine) lemon meringue pie for me. It was a slightly odd sight, a sort of tent of meringue over some raspberries but the lemon filling, if it didn’t quite waft me back to my childhood and my mother’s (packet) lemon meringue, was lovely, tart and sweet at the same time.
I had the pleasure of listening to Grace Dent (a bit of a heroine of mine) “in conversation” a few weeks ago. Someone in the audience asked her what the most important ingredient for a successful restaurant was. “The restaurant”, she replied. It’s the whole thing – the atmosphere, the way you’re greeted on arrival, the music, the style, the service – and yes, of course, the food. Gillray’s scores pretty highly in all respects.
It’s a fabulous setting for starters, with its enviable views and seemingly infinite oak-panelled corridors whispering of another era. The service was impeccable (and quite charming cherub-wise), not over-fussy, efficient. Lovely décor – check out the yellow sofas in the bar area. As Laura said, “It’s the little things that matter – like service and speed. You can have a fab meal, but if it takes 25 minutes to get served it takes the edge off the food.”
Like so many companies, Laura’s is cutting back on corporate entertainment and long expensive lunches are a thing of the past. Which is another reason why Gillray’s is a timely discovery, as the food is undoubtedly good but doesn’t cost silly money. My catch of the day was £20, Laura’s steak £25. Puds are around the £8 mark. It’s largely about steak here, with T-bone, rib and fillet on the menu, pork, lamb and burgers. It’s also largely about being British I think, with its nostalgic views of the river, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. The food is all sourced from British farmers and they pay serious homage to another very British tradition – gin.
Gillray’s is named for the English cartoonist. There are reproductions of his work on the walls, including The Plumb Pudding In Danger, which I remember from O level History and which perhaps makes the connection between the politics across the water at Westminster (and long-vanished from County Hall) and the food.
If it’s private dining you’re after, London Marriott Hotel County Hall has a number of rooms, wood-panelled chambers, of varying sizes and a lovely long Library, again with river views.
Well, it must have hit the spot with Laura. She emailed me the next day: “Thank you for a lovely evening. You might be interested to know that this morning I’ve booked Gillray’s – dinner for two and a Christmas lunch for eight.”
Gillray’s at the Marriott County Hall, Westminster Bridge Road, London SE1 7PB
Gillray’s Steakhouse and Bar: 020 7902 8000, email@example.com
Private Dining enquiries: 020 7928 5200, London.firstname.lastname@example.org