Creature of comfort food
Lisa Hilton dreams of Mayfair and the true luxury of a silky, delicate fish pie
The brilliant Midult website runs a cringemakingly accurate series of “micro-nightmares”, short phrases which instantly conjure horror and anxiety. Essentially they’re a contemporary take on flash fiction, the most famous example of which is the (not by Hemingway) classic “For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn”. “Guided meditation” is a good one, as is the perky “Quickchat?!”. It’s a fun game to try with the family.
Aside from “Intimate wash”, my personal micro-triggers seem to be centred around food. I’m still recovering from the “light meal” I was promised before a NADFAS gig in Ely. “Small plates” guarantees irritated hostility, as does “comfort food”.
Defined by the Palm Beach Post in 1966 as food associated with security, it often translates on menus as a wodge of stodge, an excuse to overcharge shamelessly for dishes that any self-respecting person ought to be able to knock up at home. I don’t want to be comforted when I go out to dinner, because I am not three. I want to be surprised, transported, delighted, not coddled in a blanket of mashed potato.
“Comfort food” lurks uncomfortably close to “comfort zone”, that revoltingly lazy psychological cliché which summons images of a sadistic David Brent character shoving a sobbing woman in leggings through a muddy tunnel outside Crawley: “Come on, Lesley, you need to get out of your comfort zone!”
If I had to choose a food that I find comforting, I’d pick a slice of watermelon, eaten on the deck of the Croce del Sud somewhere off Datca on Turkey’s Turquoise Coast whilst wearing an Eres bikini. Maybe with a really hot cabin boy to flick the pips at.
Failing that, I’d go for fish pie at Bentley’s in Mayfair. Richard Corrigan, who won his first Michelin star at Stephen Bull in Fulham in 1994, has been in charge at Bentley’s for more than a decade, transposing the high-end technical imagination he showcases at his Corrigan’s flagship nearby into a consistently assured and polished take on classic seafood.
Bentley’s describes itself as having been “The Grande Dame of Swallow Street since 1916”, yet to describe it as a London stalwart is to underestimate the care and subtlety that goes into the cooking here; Corrigan tweaks and perfects endlessly. In his hands, even the neglected nostalgia of egg mayonnaise can be triumphant. Caring about a dish which is repeated endlessly is perhaps one of the marks of a truly great chef, and the fish pie at Bentleys remains prima inter pares.
The Restaurant is divided in two, the more informal oyster bar downstairs and the restaurant proper above. On my last visit, we dined on the more formal first floor, soothing and spacious and carpeted so the staff can do proper gliding.
Soda bread and more soda bread, chewy and sweet and piled with ingots of butter, is reason alone to come here, but oysters to begin, of course — Bentley’s shucks an average of a thousand a day, divided between five or six varieties of rock and cultivated, depending on the season, with two choices of dressed, Rockefeller and Vietnamese.
Gentle Asian influence can also be tasted in the crispy squid and a really unusual mackerel plate, with kohlrabi and walnut yuzu. I’m guessing the combination comes from yubeshi, the Japanese citron candy, in which a hollowed-out yuzu is stuffed with a mixture of miso and nuts, then steamed and dried. The resulting paste sat brilliantly against the brassic tang of the kohlrabi and the sharp fattiness of the fish.
My colleague tried a Basque-ish take on octopus and potatoes, deepened with paprika and blackened peppers. Octopus and potato is a pleasing textural contrast but the flavours can sometimes meld; in this version the smoky slip of the peppers kept them a civilised distance apart. The Royal Platter of seafood is a relative bargain at £90. The selection is enough for three, and it calls for champagne, scurrilous gossip and possibly adultery, but I wanted my pie too, so we ordered both. Corrigan’s recipe calls for smoked and white fish, salmon and a cunning nugget or two of scallop. The sauce elevated rather than disguised the delicacy of the fish, and the Parmesan-scented potato, enriched with egg yolk, is a silk pillowslip rather than a duvet. I’d love to know which white wine Corrigan specified for his fish pie sauce, definitely not Blanc de Plonk, maybe vintage Dom. We had some of that, just to check, but our research was inconclusive so we’ll have to go back.
Everything at Bentley’s feels like a proper treat, not least the jaunty, curious crevette, cheerfully stargazing from the crust of the pie. Comfort indeed. As the French proverb goes, le futur est rose, disait la crevette morose — “The future is rosy, said the gloomy shrimp.”
Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill, 11-15 Swallow Street, Mayfair, London W1B 4DG. 020 7734 4756
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