Bentley’s, the grand-dame of Swallow Street, turned one hundred this September. The oyster bar and restaurant is still the place for the well-heeled Londoner and their visitors to dine on oysters and seafood while sipping champagne and cocktails – your correspondent is sure he saw director James Cameron there recently. As if one needed an excuse to go to Bentley’s, the hundredth anniversary, the start of the native oyster season, and my birthday provided three. But does it live up to its long-gained reputation? After all, many institutions of the restaurant world, with such long and illustrious histories – Rules, Simpson’s in the Strand and others – go off the boil and drop in quality at times; Rules has rebounded after its slump a few years back, though I am beginning to hear troubling noises again.
When it comes to Bentley’s, though, it’s not a concern. Richard Corrigan has owned the place for ten years now, and under his direction not only has it not put a foot wrong, but it continues to grow in strength. It’s also the best place in town for all-year-round alfresco dining. With the lighting strung down Swallow Street and around the Bentley’s canopy, the pianist, heaters, and the top-hatted doorman seeing to all your rug needs, it makes for quite the romantic setting for a date too.
There is but one way to start a meal at Bentley’s, and that’s with oysters. Though if you want to throw in some beluga and cherrystone clams, I won’t complain, even if your bank manager will, from his hospital bed after the episode induced by glancing at your evening’s expenditure. At the moment they have Loch Ryan No. 2 and West Mersea No. 2 native oysters alongside their usual selection, and they are a must – especially the West Mersea No. 2s. These native oysters, with their distinctive round shell, similar to the Bentley’s symbol, only have a short season, and are best enjoyed with just a little lemon juice or on their own. This allows the truly exquisite and subtle natural flavours to come through.
Of course you could spend your evening supping purely on oysters, but if you do order more, you’re spoilt for choice. Do you go with starters, raw bar, sharing platters, small plates, or mains? Whatever you do, you’re more than amply catered for, even if it’s meat your after (though why you would be with the beautiful array of fishy choices I don’t know). From start to finish you can go traditional with the likes of dressed crab, fish pie, grilled or meunière Dover sole, and even fish and chips, or you can go more modern, with the likes of scallop ceviche and sashimi bowls.
One of the best starters is the warm eel, bacon and horseradish salad. It’s a wonderful dish, where the salty smoked bacon works in harmony with the firm yet silken eel, against the backdrop of peppery salad leaves. The only negative is that you can’t taste the fresh grated horseradish – I’d guess that the horseradish had been grated too far in advance – it was beginning to curl from drying out, meaning the flavour was lost to the aether. Eel is becoming ever more prevalent on our menus at the moment, and long may it remain so. It’s cheap, flavourful, versatile, and we’re not about to run out of it anytime soon.
For those after something rather more substantial, there is the baked fish stew, served straight from the oven in large chipped enamel oval baking dishes, to give that classic rustic French feel. The prawns, mussels, and clams are baked in their shell, and it comes with rouille-topped baguette like all great traditional French fish stews or bouillabaisses do.
But for me the perfect fish main to have after starting any meal with oysters is to go plain and simple. Grilled fish on the bone. Dover sole is always a beautiful option, but Bentley’s is one of the few places to do turbot this way, and other than having to pick out a few bones, it’s perfection. The béarnaise that accompanies it is light and doesn’t overpower the meaty yet translucent fish, while side orders of fries and a green salad round out the dish into a complete main course.
Desserts continue the choice of impeccably crafted traditional choices. The crème brûlée is creamy and rich, while the gooseberry pie à la mode is hot, tart, and everything a pie should be, with its all-encompassing pastry crust – save for the steam hole on top that the ice cream melts into the filling through. But if you want to finish on a savoury you can. The oyster rarebit – two slices of baguette with a rich rarebit topping containing diced oyster, and served with a baby fig salad – is the perfect way to finish a meal.
A hundred years of Bentley’s? Here’s to the next hundred, and the ones that come after that.