39 Queen Victoria Street, EC4N 4SF
Nearest tube: Mansion House
“Extra-traditional, this is an extraordinary place. Superbly cooked fish in unusual surroundings.” The Evening Standard
Sweetings is an institution in the City of London – it was opened the same year as the Eiffel Tower (1889) and has been serving fresh seafood to pinstriped men ever since. In an era of pop-ups and short-lived fads (think kimchi, burgers, barbecue) it is very impressive that Sweetings have kept the same formula for over a century – the menu, building and decor are pretty much unchanged from its original incarnation, they don’t take bookings, are only open during the week and only serve lunch. Sweetings has its own fishmonger, Richard Barfoot, and freshly filleted produce is displayed in the restaurant’s window. The menu is very simple: there are a handful of traditional starters like prawn cocktail and scallops and bacon; fresh fish is the focus of the main courses – there are no fancy sauces or modern techniques here, you simply request your fish grilled, fried or poached. I was slightly surprised to read that the head chef is Galician (Carlos Vasquez) – his latin roots are not obvious in the food at Sweetings, I think any minute change to the menu would cause consternation amongst the regulars.
Seating is exclusively on high stools at communal wooden counters and bars – the service is very attentive, each area has a dedicated waiter/waitress who either stand behind the bar or are in charge of the table of 6 or 8. After slurping down our black velvets which were served in pewter tankards (when in Rome….), I started with smoked eel and horseradish cream (£10.75), unsurprisingly this was very simple: the fish had been lightly smoked and had a lovely texture, it was firm but still moist with strong hints of the sea. The accompanying horseradish cream was hot and punchy, yet still allowed the flavour of the eel to come through. My friend gave top marks to his scallops and bacon (pictured above) – the scallops were cooked perfectly and married well with the crispy bacon.
I opted for grilled dover sole for my main course (£31) – this was served whole and looked very impressive, the cooking was good (though it was possibly a smidgen over), simply seasoned with black pepper, the quality of the fish was clear and it did not need any salt. The flesh was firm and meaty, and it had been skinned and de-boned expertly so there were no stray bones. We had chips on the side which I think had been cooked from frozen but were nice enough, served straight from the frier and prepared using fresh oil. Service was very friendly and chatty (without being overbearing) and extremely efficient – all the more impressive considering the small and crowded space they are working in. It was probably the best service I have experienced in London.
Verdict: a highly recommended step back in time 7/10
“At Le Relais de Venise l’entrecote, you can have anything you like as long as it’s salad, steak and chips. If you don’t fancy a walnut salad you’re screwed, because that’s the only salad they serve. If you prefer rump to entrecote, don’t go. They don’t do it. Not that this is a place without options. Heaven forfend!” Jay Rayner, The Guardian
Entrecôte is a global chain of steak frites restaurants that was born in Paris in the late 1950s and now has outposts in London and New York. As Mr Rayner’s quote above illustrates, it is a no-choice restaurant that serves walnut salad followed by steak and chips (for £24) – I should also say that they do have a veggie option………a plate of cheese (also with frites), although on my two visits I have still yet to see anyone eating cheese. They have a no bookings policy but it is a large space and from reading quite a few reviews and blogs I have not heard of anyone waiting more than half an hour for a table. Decor aims at a classical Parisian bistrot with lots of mirrors and shiny lamps, I feel sorry for the waitresses whose outfits come straight out of ‘Allo ‘Allo.
The salad arrived very quickly – it was nicely dressed with a mustardy vinaigrette and a good number of toasted walnuts. The leaves (mostly lettuce) were fresh and crisp although, for me, it could have been jazzed up with some rocket or watercress. There are no half measures on the steak – it only comes bleu, rare, medium or well done (I was sniffed at when I asked for my steak to be cooked medium rare). I’m not entirely sure of the cut of steak used – our waitress said it was sirloin but it was a bit chewy and may have come from further down the cow (from the short loin maybe). The steak is served on a little side plate because you are topped up with a second serving once your party has finished their first helping – and it pays to be nice to your waitress as I had a more meager second helping on my latest visit. I really enjoyed the “secret” sauce – my best guess from reading online is that this uses chicken livers, thyme, mustard and cream – it is incredibly rich and certainly dominates the flavour of the steak but binds the dish together very well. The frites were freshly cooked and nicely crispy – they did the trick, although they had been prepared using fairly bland potatoes.
Service was brusque and unremarkable – although fairly swift our waitress did not break out into a smile during our entire meal.
Verdict: a good option for a quick, simple and decent value meal 6/10