There were raised eye brows earlier this year regarding the consumption of rare meats. Not so much those served at our dinner table but those being fed to animals, or more specifically, the inmates of Copenhagen zoo. The directors of the Danish zoo invited international condemnation from animal lovers and campaigners around the world when it was revealed they had first killed Marius the giraffe and fed him to the lions then a month later euthanised four healthy male lions.
So am I about to launch into a tale (sorry couldn’t resist) of eating endangered species for my dinner? No. It just struct me as an ironic coincidence that this controversy began to unfold around the same time as I had lunch with some friends at the Tate Britain’s Rex Whistler Restaurant with it’s mural the Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats.
You can read more about the splendid mural here but in a nutshell it depicts an expedition to the fictitious Duchy of Epicurania in search of exotic meats. The travellers encounter fantastic creatures such as truffle dogs and unicorns and are able to transform the diet of dry biscuits the people in their homeland are accustomed to with their delicious discoveries. Despite the somewhat trippy meaning behind the mural it’s soft green and blue tones actually make it rather soothing and transform what could otherwise be a stuffy, formal restaurant into something rather pleasant.
Situated in Pimlico the restaurant has always been a popular haunt for MP’s and underwent a major refurbishment towards the end of last year. In many circumstances the revamp of a restaurant usually requires that the menu receive similar treatment. Having never eaten at the Rex Whistler restaurant before I can’t say whether the menu has changed radically or not. What I do know is that head chef Nathan Brewster has taken his inspiration from typically British dishes which have been around since 1927 (when Whistler painted the mural). Think classic combos like calf’s liver and bacon with rumbledethumps or marmalade pudding and custard. And that rather appealed to me.
Puddings themselves are dishes that can be liberally laced with nostalgia. One mouthful can evoke memories of the people who cooked them or places visited. I have a particular fondness for treacle tart. I can’t pinpoint the precise memory which would explain why it is so endearing but it’s one of those desserts I associate with childhood (along with jam tarts and arctic roll). Perhaps it’s because it was a sweet reward for having forced down a revolting school dinner? Whatever it is, treacle tart is something I love and the dessert in question at the Rex Whistler restaurant didn’t disappoint. Here they serve not one, but two slices, of tart. The first is dark with a deep liquorice intensity (a true treacle tart). The other a golden caramel (made with the less intense golden syrup). Both were encased in light buttery pastry and were tooth achingly sweet but oh-so moreish I just couldn’t resist finishing the plate.
You could perhaps accuse the Rex Whistler menu of reading like that of any old gastro pub come 70’s bistro. It’s true that you will find pub favourites like smoked mackerel pate present but like so many of these typical dishes done well they can be a joy to eat. The mackerel pate here was rich and smooth with a perceptible wisp of smoke rather than the overpowering acrid charred scent you get with some smoked foods. Dill flavoured cornichons provided a complimentary tang to the oily fish. My only complaint would be that it was only served with a couple of thin slices of toasted rye bread which were soon gone before even half the pate had been devoured.
I’d plumped for another bistro classic for the main with a skate wing served with brown shrimp and caper butter. My husband’s mother used to say that eating skate made her chin itch. I can’t say that I’ve ever had this problem myself when I’ve eaten skate. This particular specimen was meltingly soft and accompanied by salty shrimps and piquant capers. Some just wilted spinach on the side provided an interesting hint of iron. My friend J also commented that her lemon sole fillets stuffed with anise herbs and served with a mussel sauce were delicious and G said her cauliflower cheese bread pudding and salsify was surprisingly light. So all in all we were very happy customers and thoroughly itch free.
There’s nothing rare or extraordinary about the Rex Whistler Restaurant (in a good way). The menu may be old school but it delivers modern British cooking to a very high standard with playful nods to the past. The surroundings are beautiful and the service is friendly and attentive without being overbearing. The restaurant also has an outstanding wine list which sadly I couldn’t investigate further on this visit due to being on medication following a choking incident elsewhere in London. So if you fancy pursuing rare meats, like the intrepid travellers in Whistler’s mural, you’d be better off having a chat with the keepers at Copenhagen Zoo.