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Great Queen Street Review

Neil McQuillian almost bites off more than he can chew

Written by . Published on September 20th 2011.

Great Queen Street Review

AS befits a restaurant opposite the Freemasons’ Hall, Great Queen Street is an out-of-the-ordinary place. Never mind freemasonry, the staff here is versed in the mysteries of all things foodie, and their passion generates a certain unmistakeable buzz about the low-lit restaurant. Kitted out for the most part in blue and white striped aprons, they make off-the-cuff references to food provenance and wine vintage as if, of course, we all know that, and they look like they could do everything from filleting a fish to mixing a cocktail to sniffing out a truffle at a hundred yards. To use a football analogy, it’s total restaurant in here. Reading the menu is heart-warming. There are no starters/mains/desserts headings, just a list of tasty offerings, with three drinks at the top: ginger beer, made here (£1.80), bramble and prosecco fizz (£4.60), oracle, Salopian Brewery, Shropshire (£3.20). The limited choice makes them seem more special. It’s as if GQS are encouraging us to appreciate the bounty, and it works – we supped the ale as if it was some rare treat.

I struggled to eat much (though it was delicious) – a lot of it looked like the result of a liposuction. But I had been warned by the waitress that it would be fatty and so am not complaining.

We drank in the cellar bar as we waited for a table (we’d booked for two, but picked someone else up along the way). It’s a slightly odd space – quite waiting room-like – and the barman was so intensely chatty it was if he was trying to distract us from noticing the pair of feet sticking out from the broom cupboard (or something). Much of his talk was, of course, of the drink and food on offer and we practically ran back up the stairs (in excitement, not to escape him) when our table was announced.

In contrast to his wordiness, the dishes on the menu are described succinctly. Indeed, for the most part they are simply little parcelings of ingredients, so on offer were St Tola, radishes, cucumbers, mint and samphire (£5.80), cockles, saffron and clotted cream (£6.80), poached salmon, new season’s borlotti and wild sorrel (£16). Some were even more basic: minute steak (£16) and mushroom pie (£24, for two people to share). Sides were just greens, herb salad or new potatoes. There’s very little mention of sauces or flavourings. Let us take care of all that, they seem to be saying.

Someone had taken a pen to our copy of the menu. Certain dishes had had ‘cold’ written next to them, for instance. I wasn’t sure at first why this was done (ever had a herb salad that's not cold?) but on reflection I think we’d nicked this menu from the cellar bar, and our man had mentioned earlier that hot dishes couldn’t be served downstairs. The ‘gravy and child factor’, he’d said.

One dish had been scribbled out – the rib of Hereford beef with chips and béarnaise was obviously that evening’s top seller, even at £52 for two people – while a few extra dishes were written up at the top. It’s as if the menu is a work in progress, a blueprint that they hone.

Rillettes with taost and cornichonsRillettes with taost and cornichons

Starters were delicate-looking, but packed a cholesterol punch. The you-don’t-want-to-know moistness of rillettes (£5.80) was complemented by crisp toast (from good bread) and tangy cornichons. A plate of the restaurant’s own ham (£8) came with pieces of nectarine whose perfect juiciness was a little obscene. The accompanying bread was cut in good doorstep tradition.

GQS’s habit of including ‘sharing’ mains is cute. It’s hard to resist a ‘pie for two’ (perhaps it raises greedy hopes that you can get more than your fair share). This mushroom version took a while to arrive but it was an excellent creation, a pie fit for a whistle, and so satisfying that even the most enthusiastic carnivore wouldn’t have missed the meat.

Fried pig%26#8217%3Bs cheek, dwarf beans, rocket and anchovy dressingFried pig's cheek, dwarf beans, rocket and anchovy dressing

Fried pig’s cheek, dwarf beans, rocket and anchovy dressing (£13.80) was pushing the boundaries of offal-loving, fat-is-cool, nose-to-tail eating. This was not pig’s cheek as I know it. I had it for the first time only recently in excellent Lyon bouchon, Le Musée. I didn’t know the word when I saw it on the menu and the chef-owner had explained it by grabbing his own substantial jowel and squelching it back and forth. It was slow-cooked and delicious. Then I bought it on returning to the UK, thanks to Waitrose’s ‘Forgotten Cuts’ policy. It was seriously cheap (about the only thing I ever buy from Waitrose which isn’t from their version of a Whoops section). I cooked it forever and again it was very good. GQS, however, left a great quantity of fat attached to the meat and then deep-fried the whole lot. I struggled to eat much (though it was delicious) – a lot of it looked like the result of a liposuction. But I had been warned by the waitress that it would be fatty and so am not complaining. The coating was, in any case, excellent and the frying perfect. The tangy dwarf beans and rocket were a welcome foil to the fat.

Pistachio milk and browniesPistachio milk and brownies

The wine list is extensive and the number of samples (there’s that passion again) they gave us as we deliberated would have been enough to fill a glass. The one we plumped for, a Portugese Douro (Vinha da Palestra, 2008, £20.70), had the body to stand up to the richness of this food. There’s a good range of desserts, too. This night they ranged from greengage and almond tart (£6) through white chocolate semifreddo and summer berries (£5.80) and crème caramel (£3.80). We ordered the pistachio milk and brownies (£4) and they gave us some ice-cream and a biscuit on the house, too (we were, I suppose, acting a little childishly by this late stage of the evening).

Great Queen Street’s logo – a knife and fork on either side of a crown – is spot on: this is food that you’ll want to tuck into, with service that makes you feel like a VIP.

Great Queen Street
32 Great Queen Street
London, WC2B 5AA

Rating: 17/20


8.5/10 food

5/5 service

3.5/5 atmosphere

Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, cafes against the best cafes. Following on from this the scores represent: 1 – 5 saw your leg off and eat it, 6 – 9 get a DVD, 10 – 11 if you must, 12 – 13 if you’re passing, 14 – 15 worth a trip, 16 –17 very good, 17 – 18 exceptional, 19 pure quality, 20 perfect. More than 20: We get carried away.

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