Pandemic has brought many truths, the most minor of which is: I can’t cook steak. I thought I could. I burnt butter and seared meat and — lo! — perfect steak. Then I asked Matt Brown, the executive chef at Hawksmoor, the best steak restaurant in London excepting Beast (and Beast is a charnel house and a metaphor, and it is weird) to help me improve my steak in a Zoom lesson and — lo! — I cannot cook steak.
I was kindly disposed to Hawksmoor because of its name. Names are important. I have fallen in love with people because of their names. Hawksmoor is the real hero of the English Baroque. You cannot review a name though. You cannot eat a name. But you can review the breakfast at the Guildhall branch. (There are nine branches now.) It is one of the great London meals. They serve bacon chops; and it is where I take my husband for his birthday. I own the cookbook, even if I do not read it. Their philosophy is immaculate: serve the best meat and look after the staff.
Matt sends the lists of ingredients: for mashed potato; for heritage tomato salad; for peppercorn sauce; for the Queen of Puddings; for porterhouse steak. He appears at noon with a pastry chef called Carla. She is made of sugar and smiles. He exudes confidence and strength: a man to terrify cows and critics.
I can make a heritage tomato salad. Let that be my epitaph. It is worth shopping for the banana shallot, the mint, the parsley and the lemon. I can also make a peppercorn sauce. The green peppercorns in brine, the extraordinary amount of cream and the Colman’s mustard make a sauce of incredible density and feeling, which I will make again. But I pre-boiled the potatoes and, like a vegetable whose soul has flown away beyond our reach, Matt says there is nothing we can do for them. We must let them go.
The villain, of course, is the Aga. I wrote last time how, when I cooked over Zoom with Ollie Dabbous, I had my first sense that the Aga I am so proud of — it is older than me — was not perhaps the uncomplicated good I thought it was. Ollie Dabbous looked comically at the Aga with a tilt of the head and a tiny questioning look. Matt just stares at it. I am beginning to think that the Aga is not an oven after all. It is a heating system on which you can cook if you are dying: but you might as well throw the steak on the river.
The Aga is not hot enough to cook a Hawksmoor steak. It will never be hot enough to cook a Hawksmoor steak. So the preparation — the rubbing of the salt — is pointless. It does not matter either that the porter-house steak I ordered from the butchers is not, when I remove it from the bag, a porterhouse steak at all but a sad little rump. Matt’s steak, uncooked, looks glorious — marbled is the word — and it gets better. My steak looks ready for Freudian psycho-analysis, in which it will make no progress. The cooking lesson is now a sitcom in which I stutter and shriek and Matt stays calm; or a newspaper article, an homage to a woman’s failure. The moral is: if you want a Hawksmoor steak, go to Hawksmoor. I am not Gove. I can never have enough of experts.
The Queen of Puddings — a sort of hot custard cake with berries and soft meringue — goes rather better, because the Aga will consent to bake. It will bake in its own time zone, but it will do it. The rest, though, is carnage of the wrong kind.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
Hawksmoor Guildhall, 10 Basinghall St, London EC2, tel: 020 7397 8120.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10