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Friday, February 02, 2007

Fish in the City

Some people regard the City of London as an exclusive club, a closed system that is inimical to outsiders, and in some senses, they are right.
The advantage of this, on a social level, is that once you are in, you are in and no questions asked.
For years, I have longed to visit one of the great institutions of the City, Sweetings fish restaurant, but was always put off by the fact that it is so obviously an insiders' haunt.
It is open only at lunchtime from Monday to Friday, from 11 o'clock until 3 p.m. in the afternoon and doesn't take any reservations. The seating arrangements are idiosyncratic – mostly around bars and counters, with one long table that must be shared with all other comers, and the menu is almost Spartan in its simplicity. Starters consist of things like smoked salmon and brown bread, or crayfish cocktail, while the main courses run to fried haddock and chips, steamed sea-bass, and scampi.
My curiosity was finally sated recently when a Sweetings regular offered to be my escort for a leisurely lunch. He was warmly greeted by name, not just by the maitre d', but also by the waitress, the bar staff and the head chef, who came out from his lair specially.
I didn't like to demur when he suggested we start with Black Velvets, which to my mind are usually a waste of good champagne and good Guinness, but then I've never drunk them out of silver tankards before. I don't know if it was the receptacle, the quality or the friendly service, but this was a delicious if filling drink.
The crayfish cocktail was supplemented with generous amounts of lobster, by special request, and my breaded fried haddock was excellent. The accompanying chips were good, but the star of the main course, oddly enough, was the spinach, which was plentiful, beautifully seasoned and had just the right amount of butter on it.
We eschewed the public school dessert menu (sticky toffee pudding and the like) in favour of a savoury – Welsh Rarebit, made with cheddar cheese, mustard and ample Worcestershire sauce.
At this point we ran into another of the idiosyncracies that make Sweetings seem impenetrable. They don't serve coffee. Still, by this time I was enjoying myself so much, and had made such good friends with the staff that I was prepared to forgive even this, on the grounds that this was how it had always been.