Burnt Sugar By Kevin Cheeseman
‘Didn’t Maggie want to come this evening, then?’ asked Rachel.
‘No,’ said Max. He was busy jotting notes and setting the menu straight in front of him. ‘I thought she would when I told her I was coming here but...no.’
‘Does she know you’re with me?’
‘Sure,’ said Max, fiddling with his phone. ‘She knows you’re one of my regular companions.’
‘That’s me, the critic’s anonymous “companion”.’
She watched as Max took photographs of the menu.
‘What’s she doing tonight, then?’
‘Hmm?’ said Max, studying his screen.
‘Maggie. What’s she doing tonight?’
‘She’s watching that baking thing,’ said Max.
‘Oh, damn – is it the final tonight?’
Max peered at her over his glasses.
‘Please, not you too.’
‘I’d better switch my phone off,’ said Rachel. ‘I don’t want to hear the result.’
She slipped her phone into her bag, scanned the menu briefly, and then surveyed the room.
‘This place is unrecognisable, isn’t it?’
Max inspected their surroundings. It was light and airy, the noise levels were comfortable, the atmosphere relaxed.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I hate it.’
Lockton’s has been a fixture in Fitzrovia for decades. You might think you know it but you don’t, not now. It’s had a ‘defurb’. The thick carpet and dark wallpaper have been stripped out to leave brutally bare floorboards and walls in a shade so neutral it could win the Peace Prize.
It’s not just front of house that’s had a makeover. New head chef, Josh Lampard, has served with several Michelin starred chefs and now he’s striving for a star of his own. Per ardua ad Michelin astra?
Back in the day, Lockton’s was the sort of place you’d take your best girl if you were planning to pop the question. Trust me, I know. If you were lucky, she’d take the steady, dependable nature of the restaurant to be a reflection of your own character and say “yes”. I’m not sure that trick would work now.
As they were studying the menu, the Maître D’ materialised at their table bearing two glasses of champagne.
‘Mister Howell,’ he said, ‘Please accept this small gesture, with our compliments.’
‘Naughty naughty, Edouard,’ said Max. ‘Still, I suppose it would be rude to refuse.’
‘One would never accuse you of being rude, Mister Howell,’ said Edouard. He withdrew, promising to send their waiter over.
‘Cheers,’ said Max, sipping his champagne. ‘Right - what are you going to have?’
‘Gosh, do I get to choose for myself?’
‘It was a rhetorical question, sugar. You start with the roasted cauliflower and zhoug. I’ll have the squid.’
‘You’ll have to remind me what zhoug is. Anyway, I fancied the Japanese tacos.’
‘They do sound intriguing. In fact, I’ll have those - you have the squid.’
Rachel sighed and put the menu down,
‘This new chef - is he related to Frank Lampard, the footballer?’
‘Don’t ask me. Now, for the main course, you’ll have to have a meat dish.’
‘My Mum used to have the hots for him.’
‘The lamb sounds good…,’
‘Still does, actually.’
‘… or there’s the pork cooked three ways. That reminds me, did you see they cut my “fancying a three-way” gag last week?’
‘Quite right. I told you it was disgusting.’
Happily, the service at Lockton’s is still a model of attentiveness and we’re made to feel very welcome before inspecting the menu.
For starters, there are many enticing options but my companion eventually opts for the squid. The mound of tender, pearly-white loveliness in a creamy almond-flavoured sauce induces such an ecstatic reaction that the woman on the next table tells the waiter, ‘I’ll have what she’s having’. (No, of course, she didn’t. Life’s not a rom-com, is it? Well, mine certainly isn’t.) I’m gagging for a mouthful myself but apparently, some things are too delicious to share.
Still, there are plenty more fish in the sea. There’s obviously a risk of “confusion cuisine” with Japanese tacos but this transpacific synthesis is sheer gastro-porn. Crisp nori shells are filled with minced raw tuna in carnal shades of pink and decorated with beads of lime-green wasabi. First, the rich taste of the oily fish, then a hit of hot wasabi. Oh, the pain and the pleasure.
‘By the way,’ said Rachel, ‘the forecast this weekend is dry, perfect weather for fell walking.’
‘Sounds great. I’ve got two restaurants to review though.’
‘That’s Friday night and Saturday night, which still leaves all day Saturday and Sunday …’
‘Thursday night and Friday night,’ interrupted Max. ‘Thursday’s the one-star place in Ambleside. Friday’s a new place in Keswick.’
‘We’re travelling up on Friday, aren’t we? Back Sunday night.’
‘Slight change of plan. I had to bring the schedule forward 24 hours.’
‘But - I can’t take two days off work. I was pushing my luck taking Friday off.’
‘I’ve got a family thing Sunday lunchtime. I thought I told you, sugar.’
‘You know damn well you didn’t.’
They paused hostilities as the waiter served the main course.
‘You can still come up on Friday,’ said Max. ‘I’ll just have to do the Thursday gig solo.’
‘Are you serious?’ hissed Rachel. ‘Travel up to Cumbria for one sodding night? It was supposed to be our weekend away.’
She fell silent, her gaze fixed on her plate.
‘How’s the lamb?’ asked Max.
‘All right - it’s delicious,’ said Rachel. ‘I’ve no idea how they’ve prepared it but I expect you do. The vegetables are as fresh as if they’d just been picked. Excuse the cliché, you can fix that. The mushrooms – some Japanese name – are sumptuous. Will that do?’
‘Thanks. Very helpful.’
He ate another mouthful.
‘This fish isn’t great.’
Rachel did not respond.
‘I say, this fish...’
Rachel threw her napkin on the table and stood up.
‘I’m going to the loo.’
For her main course, my companion chooses slow-cooked lamb and relishes telling me how sumptuous it is. For service it is sliced, quickly seared, and served with fresh peas and beans with clusters of shimeji mushrooms. Delightful.
I was less fortunate with my own choice. A fillet of brill has been stranded on a bank of herb risotto, alongside a pool of langoustine reduction. Over-cooked and with a soggy skin, it’s brill by name, not by nature. This plate of food should never have made it out of the kitchen. If Lampard wants to prove that there’s a new sheriff in town, he really should be heading the baddies off at the pass.
It’s a let-down, frankly. I expect a bit of magic when I dine out but if you find yourself thinking, ‘I could get this at home’, the spell has been well and truly broken.
‘I ordered crème brûlée for you,’ said Max, when Rachel returned. ‘I thought it might cheer you up.’
‘It’ll take more than a sodding crème brûlée,’ said Rachel. She ate a mouthful, pulled a face, and pushed her plate away.
‘I’ve had enough,’ she said.
‘Is it that bad?’
‘I meant us. And, yes, it is.’
She grabbed her bag and got up to go.
‘Find yourself a new dining companion, Max. I’m tired of being a mistress you can put on expenses.’
Max watched her walk out. He tried a spoonful of the brûlée and made a note.
Edouard appeared and said quietly, ‘Is your friend okay? She seemed rather upset.’
‘She received some bad news. Had to leave.’
‘How unfortunate. And how is Mrs Howell? Will we have the pleasure of her company again soon?’
‘Mrs Howell is fine,’ snapped Max. ‘Not that it’s any business of yours. Now, clear off and order me a cab.’
Max waited in the vestibule, slumped in an armchair. He was still deep in thought when Edouard emerged to inform him that his cab was outside.
Max rose and touched Edouard lightly on the elbow.
‘I’m sorry about earlier. Don’t know what got into me. I’ll tell my wife you asked after her, she’ll be delighted.’
As he opened his front door, Maggie called to him from the living room. Max found her reclining on the sofa with a glass of wine and a magazine, the TV flickering soundlessly.
‘What brings you home so soon?’
‘Just felt like an early night. Listen, do you fancy coming up to The Lakes on Thursday? We’ll be back in time for the do on Sunday.’
Maggie studied Max’s face.
‘What happened? Did someone let you down?’
‘Yeah. No… I don’t know. Maybe it’s me.’
Max sighed heavily.
‘I just thought you might like to join me. We used to go away together all the time. It was fun, wasn’t it? But if you’d rather not…’
‘Yes,’ interrupted Maggie. She stood up and hugged him. ‘Yes. I’d love to come.’
‘The weather’s going to be perfect for fell walking, apparently.’
‘Come off it, Max. You hate fell walking.’
“Would you care to see the dessert menu?”
Oh, go on then. Even though we know it’ll be another catalogue of insincere promises. Those tired old tarts and sweet young things flutter their eyelids and we succumb to temptation again.
My own fall from grace comes in the form of a tarte au citron. A just-set filling has the perfect level of acidity and sits on a crisp thin pastry. Does it make my heart sing? Well, yes, but sadly it’s crooning that old Peggy Lee number, “Is That All There Is?”.
Still, you can’t go wrong with crème brûlée, can you? Oh. Apparently, you can. My companion can’t even finish hers. It’s dismal. What a pity to finish like this – a wobbly mess and the bitter taste of burnt sugar.
I wanted to like the new Lockton’s but it seems they’ve forsaken the steady and predictable only to find that the thrills of the new can be illusory. Well, which of us hasn’t made that mistake? Sure, there were occasional delights and fleeting excitement but, in the end, I found myself yearning for more familiar comforts.