The first Hawksmoor steakhouse opened in 2006 near London's Spitalfields Market, a couple of minutes' walk from the beautifully restored Christ Church Spitalfields, designed in the early eighteenth century by the architect Nicolas Hawksmoor. Hence the name.
Jackie and I never managed to get there for a meal, largely because steak is not often something we crave when traveling, but with the late-2010 opening of Hawksmoor Seven Dials near Covent Garden, the convenient location tipped the balance and we reserved a table for after the theater. Another factor was our eagerness to eat dry-aged beef from The Ginger Pig, a butcher shop whose owner raises his own longhorns in the wilds of Yorkshire.
Hawksmoor Seven Dials is in the iron-columned, brick-vaulted basement of what was originally a brewery, decorated largely with reclaimed furniture and presenting an image of always-been-there solidity. Our server told us that toward the end of the week, when filled with drunken traders, this can be a noisy space, but it was pleasant late on a Tuesday night. She too was pleasant, and well-informed. She instantly took it on board that we weren't the customers who order two-and-a-half-pound porterhouses and proposed that we share a sirloin (shell or strip loin as we'd call it in the US) weighing around a pound and a quarter including the bone: a steak offered on the menu as a one-diner portion (£30 - $48). She didn't push side dishes beyond what we wanted (crunchy chunks of potato fried in beef fat -- delicious). She didn't try to sell us fancy wine either. Some might say that she wasn't doing her job, but I'd say that she took our wishes seriously.
The steak, charcoal grilled and thickly sliced off the bone in the kitchen, was excellent: Not sweetly rich or eerily tender like a typical American steak from a feedlot-bloated animal, but funkily deep in a long-aged flavor that stayed with me (in a good way) long after the steak was gone. As usual, it got better as it cooled: next time I must remember to have them bring the steak while we're half way through our first courses.
Oh: First courses. We shared a generous smoked eel and hamhock salad (£10), an appealing idea marred by superfluous ingredients (peas or pea shoots, please, preferably the latter, as all the peas do is roll around the plate evading your fork), tough croutons and under-seasoning. Desserts, on the other hand, were wonderful, notably an orange-flavored variation on sticky toffee pudding: a good reason to go easy on the rest of the meal.
While there are costly wines, the list includes bottles starting at £18, and many wines are available by the glass or half-liter carafe.
I haven't eaten enough steaks in London to say that Hawksmoor's are the best, but they are awfully good.
The half-year-old Dabbous (named for its chef/co-owner, Ollie Dabbous, about whom you can read here) could hardly be more different from Hawksmoor and its grilled slabs of meat. Here too the décor involves ironwork and hard surfaces, but I found the effect brutal rather than solid. The food, however, is elegant, subtle, thought-through and (mostly) clear-flavored: no brutality there at all. Portions are (happily) moderate but not tiny: unless you are particularly hungry, greedy or curious, two of you will do fine sharing, say, three first courses and two mains -- plus dessert, of course. (Note that many dishes contain nuts, even if not as a principal ingredient; those who do not eat nuts should keep well away.)
And you will eat bread: The home-made loaf, modestly studded with nuts and seeds and its crust crisped and caramelized over live coals, is extraordinary. Slices of it, brought in a brown paper bag, come with a dish of creamy, salty butter, also home-made and made with skill.
Home-made butter yields a byproduct: buttermilk. The night we were there, this was the basis of the sauce for a bowlful of tiny new-season potatoes, wild St. George's mushrooms and fava beans (like most first courses, a bargain at £7). The favas, sadly, were overcome by the richness of the sauce and might as well have been saved for another purpose -- or included in larger numbers to add freshness to the dish.
Mixed alliums (members of the onion-garlic family), including intensely flavorful flower buds, were served in an irresistible crystalline broth scented with pine: subtle but aromatic. A lovely way to serve asparagus was with toasted hazelnuts and a "virgin" rapeseed oil mayonnaise topped with meadowsweet.
Main dishes (£14) too were delicious (that is sometimes the perfect word, even if it is imprecise). Halibut cooked to pure-white perfection, very gently grilled, was served with beets, watercress stems (which, come to think of it, were more than a little chewy) and a marvelous emulsion called iodized sour cream, containing herbs and oysters but tasting less specific than that. Cheese added extra flavor to lamb shoulder served with grilled runner beans and what else but lesser calamint, a member of the mint family. A medium-rare shoulder cut of Ibérico pork could have been more tender, but it was beautiful and flavorful.
Custardy milk curd with fragrant rose petals was a happy way to end, as was a ganache dessert made with a good citric chocolate. The dish was lightened with sheep's milk ice cream and scented with dill (brilliant) but freighted with a basil "moss" that, while beautiful, did nothing for the dish. One-bite cannelés prettily topped with cherries came with the very reasonable bill.
The cooking here is not perfect, but it is consistently interesting, pleasing and -- that word again -- delicious. While it would be possible to wax intellectual about Dabbous, I found it easy to enjoy, which can't be said for all restaurants with similarly clever menus.
Hawksmoor Seven Dials, 11 Langley Street, London WC2H 9JG; +44 (0) 207 856 2154; www.thehawksmoor.com (reservations can be made through the website). Open lunch and dinner (lunch only on Sundays). Our dinner for two, including wine and service charge, totaled £115 ($180).
Dabbous, 39 Whitfield Street, London W1T 2SF; +44 (0) 207 323 1544; www.dabbous.co.uk (reservations for the restaurant and its downstairs bar can be made through the website, though they are hard to come by). Open lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday. Our slightly too large dinner for two, including wine and service charge, cost £111 ($175).
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