In praise of Saturday lunch

23 Nov 2013 by Nick Lander/FT

The time has finally come to admit to a secret addiction. The meal I look forward to most, the one that has engendered the happiest memories, is undoubtedly Saturday lunch.

I have only a rough idea of when this habit began but I do know precisely who was responsible: it was about 25 years ago and the guilty parties were my wife and children.

That was the era when a good Saturday lunch was a bribe. If, we pointed out to our children, you enjoy the museum, gallery or walk around the city we are about to embark upon on a Saturday morning, then your reward will be a really good lunch. In those days it was pasta or pizza, ice cream or a chocolate dessert. Saturday lunches subsequently became more expensive.

This tactic worked wherever we went: around London, Paris, Vienna, Milan and Barcelona. It was so enjoyable principally, I believe, because Saturdays are so much more flexible than Sundays. There are more places to visit, both before and after lunch, and if the lunch is very good there is the prospect of a siesta without having the anxiety of the trip home or the forthcoming week on a Sunday evening.

Finally, because many restaurants that open for Saturday lunch tend to stay open all afternoon and then into the evening, service can often be at its most relaxed and attentive as the staff are not watching the clock for the start of their break.

Over the years, this practice led to family celebrations over Saturday lunch. The back room of Racine, Brompton Road, which has just celebrated its tenth birthday under chef/proprietor Henry Harris, was the venue for a significant birthday for our son while St John, Smithfield, squeezed in 100 friends and 30 of their children for my 50th many years ago.

As restaurateurs adapt to their customers' changing demands, more and more are opening for Saturday lunch, I am delighted to report. These now include Mirror Room at the lavishly renovated Rosewood Hotel on High Holborn, close to the exquisite Sir John Soane Museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields, and Berners Tavern in the Berners Street Hotel, a brisk walk away from the Wallace Collection in Manchester Square and temptingly close to Oxford Street.

While these restaurants are different in style, both share several features thanks to the deep pockets of the hoteliers behind them. But as an example of just how important a busy restaurant is to any new hotel, both have brought in individuals who give each restaurant a distinct sense of individuality.

Tony Chi, the New York-based designer, has spent Rosewood's money to impressive effect generating a sense of luxury and warmth in Mirror Room. Into this large and very comfortable space have been brought the culinary talents of Bjorn Van Der Horst, a chef who has now returned to London from Bali with the indigestible title of Director of Food and Beverage.

But this combination produces some very good food, in particular a Dover sole with truffle mayonaisse, a veal tartar, and a lamb, sweetbread and Guinness pie. Desserts are excellent, which bodes well for anyone looking for a new place to take afternoon tea.

One other admirable feature these two restaurants share is an excellent range of wines by the glass (crucial so that the Saturday siesta does not last too long) compiled by two hugely enthusiastic sommeliers. Patrick Frawley, back from a stint in Hong Kong, is in charge at Mirror Room, while Biarritz-born Jonathan Fillion is in charge at Berners Tavern.

I had just sat down with an excellent view of the high ceilings at Berners Tavern when I witnessed something that possibly happens only during a Saturday lunch but was also a great tribute to Fillion's footwork. He had just emerged from the service corridor at the far end of the room carrying a decanter of red wine and four expensive glasses when a small child crawled in front of him. Fillion swerved; an accident was averted; and the child was soon safely in his mother's arms.

I now had time to take in the room. This, and the hotel, have been underwritten by Marriott, who have sensibly brought in two particular specialists: designer Ian Schrager and chef Jason Atherton. The former has created an eye-catching room: I85 paintings hang from the high walls (and are cleaned and polished every night!) with two vast round chandeliers that once hung in New York's Grand Central Station in the centre. (The picture above is taken from the restaurant's website.)

Atherton has created a menu of equally strong flavours. A potato and parsley soup with snails, diced black pudding and a toasted sandwich, made from Mother's Pride and filled with snails and black pudding, was particularly successful and comforting and so too was a dish of papardelle with a Scottish game ragu. The scallops in the ceviche were slightly too warm and the 'sandwich' of pulled pork was in fact a hamburger bun. The salted caramel ice cream is first class but the other desserts are somewhat stodgy.

But as bottles of champagne were being opened at 4 pm, I realised that I may not be the only person addicted to Saturday lunch, a view confirmed by Matthew Mawtus, Berners' general manager. 'We never expected to be so busy on Saturday lunch but we had 145 booked today', he said with great satisfaction.

Mirror Room  Rosewood London, 252 High Holborn, London WC1V 7EN
tel +44 (0)20 7781 8888 

Berners Tavern  10 Berners Street, London W1T 3NP
tel +44 (0)20 7908 7999

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