There can be few finer views of the Thames than those from the tall windows of Gillray's, a restaurant at the old County Hall that epitomises all that is great about Britain.
Gillray’s is the very essence of timeless elegance. Long and narrow, it curves in a graceful half-moon along a wall that overlooks the Thames, where those soaring windows offer that glorious view — taking in the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and the London Eye. It is named after the English caricaturist James Gillray and his artwork adorns the walls (though 'Gout', his paen to the effects of good living, is strangely absent). The supremely comfortable furniture is bespoke and includes a nine-metre Chesterfield sofa, which is pretty impressive. There are chandeliers, lots of brass and long mirrors beside the windows to offer more light, but they do present an optical illusion. A waitress was once asked if there were two London Eyes…
On — yet another — rainy evening in London town, Gillray’s isn’t madly busy, but there are plenty of diners. Tables are far apart and the acoustics mean conversation is a muted hum, rather than an intrusive hubbub. There are couples and lone diners, the latter looking suspiciously political... well, it is a stone's throw from Westminster and ministers on expenses have to eat somewhere, don't they?
And if you have to eat, you might as well eat beautiful food. Gillray’s is unashamedly British and a steakhouse, so expect English classics and superlative meat. Instead of bread, your waiter will bring you a plate of 'Yorkies' — warm, billowy Yorkshire puddings filled with melted cheese and served with horseradish blended with crème fraiche for dipping. Absolutely irresistible.
Cornish oysters are on offer, for £9.50 per half dozen or £18 per dozen, as well as smoked haddock chowder for £8 and Forman’s ‘London cure’ smoked salmon at £9. Scallops come with the restaurant's own black pudding (£11.50) - a veritable log of it - which is tasty but a little overpowering for the three delicate bivalves, which are faultlessly cooked. The dish is finished with apple and celeriac.
A warm duck parfait (£8) is, it has to be said, a little disconcerting. It is warm as advertised but a rather runny, smooth liver purée. The thinly sliced toasted fruit bread is delicious and perfect for scooping up the loose, silky purée.
If disconcerting is what you want, order the ‘bull’s head’ (£55) - two steaks butterflied with the bone left in to look like horns. It’s a mighty kilo of meat, so you’d need to be hungry — or two could share. The 600g T-bone (£42) is more manageable, and comes cooked perfectly as requested (a lush pink medium rare). All the meat is Aberdeen Angus from selected farms, and is hung for 35 days. It is served with a choice of potatoes and the sauté with red onions hits the spot nicely. A side of bubble and squeak (£3.50) is quintessentially English, though perhaps not entirely necessary.
A steak burger (£17) is almost as big as the T-bone and just as flawlessly cooked. It's served on a brioche bun, with melting cheese and garnish, accompanied by superb chips in a charming old-fashioned ice cream sundae dish (it's not exactly clear why but it's cute and a little kitsch, one supposes). The brioche is an excellent idea, as its light texture and buttery flavour complement the juicy burger to perfection.
The English theme continues with puddings, with such delights as Cabinet pudding (also known as Chancellor's pudding, which would have been more apt, but might have put people off), Dorset batter pudding and seasonal meringue pie. If you're too full from those epic steaks, then ice creams are more manageable. There are several innovative flavours, including salted caramel, roasted peanut and frozen yoghurt (though it’s probably too late to be virtuous), at a very reasonable £7 for three generous scoops.
However, the pièce de résistance is the traditional sherry trifle (£8). It is served in a glass jar, decorated with a frill over the lid and a label of the ingredients on raffia string tied around its neck, and served with an elegant glass of sherry. The idea is that you open the jar, dig through the layers of cream and custard, fruit and jelly and sponge with the long spoon provided and tip in the sherry to your liking. And if you can't eat it all, you simply pop the lid back on and take it home with you. Genius! The little label even provides the recipe so you can reproduce it at home, although it's hard to believe you could make it quite so perfect.
Gillray’s celebration of all that is English means that gin features heavily on an impressive cocktail list — there's even a ‘gin of the month', which appears in specially created cocktails. So you might be able to sample the Night Bird (£11.50), a zingy concoction of Sloane’s Gin with cardamom liqueur, vanilla, lime and mango, or one of the most unusual cocktails you will ever experience, the Gin Inspiration (£14.50) — Sloane’s, fennel, celery juice, agave syrup, lime, pineapple and a touch of liquorice. Served with sharp English Cheddar. Yes, really — and it works. The cocktail is almost savoury and the cheese brings those flavours to the fore.
More prosaically, Gillray’s has an extensive wine list — including, of course, some English, such as Chapel Down and the less well-known Jenkyn Place, which straddles the North Downs in Hampshire. A Greenwood Pass Californian Sauvignon Blanc is a steal at £29 a bottle or £7.75 a glass, while a Veramonte Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile washes the steak down beautifully (£42 or £8.75). There are also half bottles available of some wines.
The Last Word
Gillray’s is beyond glamorous and offers superbly cooked and presented food in sumptuous surroundings. Who cares what the weather is doing? At Gillray’s the outlook is always fine.