My husband and I have a favorite restaurant in London that absolutely no one knows about. Except, that is, the locals and regulars we see when we're there. But our 'set,' so to speak, has never heard of it. We ferry over very special friends when we feel like sharing.
Why do we love it? Its completely unpretentious location? Well, frankly, I wouldn't mind if that improved. The otherworldly amaretto sours (yes, I said amaretto sours) made with the fresh juice of an entire lemon? That's definitely part of it. But actually, it's what I already mentioned: sharing.
The menu changes daily, and there's only about three or four appetizers, mains, and desserts to choose from—all seasonal and fabulous—on the printed paper menu. But the secret is to look up to the chalkboard on the wall. I never let us arrive after 8, or we risk the dreaded chalk line through one of the specials—the menu equivalent of the chalk outline of a murder victim. You can see what was there, but now it's gone. Shudder.
The thing that makes it so special is, all the chalkboard items are made to share.
Our favorite is the slow-cooked lamb shoulder for five, which comes in a cast iron pot, still bubbling, and a second cast-iron tray full of Boulangère potatoes. There are two big spoons, and that's it. You serve yourself. Firsts, seconds; more often than not, thirds and fourths; friends trading pieces of lamb, and scraping at the corner of the potato dish. There's the sea bass acqua pazza or steak-frites for two or three with creamy béarnaise. I know it seems conflicting, to want to go out so that you can eat the way you do at home, but I just love it. It feels more convivial than any other meal I've ever had.
And that was the inspiration behind this fish. Even stranger to make a meal to imitate a restaurant that imitates the home, but there you have it. A bream or a bass, big enough for two, stuffed with a simple mushroom-truffle pesto and topped with crispy broiled wild mushrooms. The great thing about cooking a whole fish is that you can't serve it in anything other than the pan in which it was cooked. So, it has that feel of our secret place. Bring it to the table, and we just paw at it with our forks, taking pieces, and losing track of how many servings it's been, insisting the other take more. And I love the curious juxtaposition of fish with an ingredient as earthy as mushroom. It makes for a terrific contrast of texture and flavor. There's something concrete about a meal that is made for two and made to be shared. I like the directive. Eat and be together now.
I'm just doing what the fish tells me to do.
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