Simpson's is a restaurant so English that they even banned the word 'menu' – and while they're still serving Champagne, they're now making a real effort to champion the British alternatives. Octavia Pollock went along to try it out.
Sir Winston Churchill would have approved. Simpson’s in the Strand, where he dined regularly from their famous carvery at his corner table, is celebrating sparkling wine that even he, as a devotee of Pol Roger, would have enjoyed: English bubbly.
The classic London restaurant is now serving sparkling wines made by West Sussex vineyard Ridgeview; they celebrated the appearance of these wines during English Wine Week in May, pairing the vineyard’s best sparkling wines with dishes drawn from Simpson’s ‘Bill of Fare’. It’s only fitting that English wine be celebrated in a restaurant whose original Master Cook Thomas Davey celebration of British food stretched even as far as banning the Frenchified word ‘menu’.
The restaurant opened in 1828 as the Grand Cigar Divan, a chess club and coffee house, when the giant silver domes of the table-side carvery were employed to avoid disturbing chess games. Today, they still make a regular appearance, adding a real touch of theatre to a meal.
The domes weren’t used during our evening, however. Instead, it was four different classics picked out – oysters, crab, duck and cranachan – to be put together with four varieties of Ridgeview’s sparkling wine. The oysters – huge, succulent Jersey rock oysters – were set off by a glass of Blanc de Blancs Brut, a 100% single-estate Chardonnay with notes of lemon and almond.
With the Dorset crab salad, Ridgeview’s Cavendish made a fine accompaniment; and finally the tender, juicy Gressingham duck breast, with its crispy toasted rice and poached pear, was given the support it needs from the rich, black-cherry scents of Blanc de Noirs Brut.
Much to my chagrin, I couldn’t tuck into the cranachan – it contains just about the only thing I can’t eat, rhubarb – but no sooner had I apologised than it was whisked away by our charming waiter and replaced by a exquisite lemon posset with sweet orange pieces, alongside the Rose de Noirs Brut that proved to be a triumphant climax to the meal.
The restaurant’s general manager is Anna Lomas the first woman in this gentleman’s-own club to hold the position – something all the more surprising (and welcome) when you hear that women were prohibited from the main dining room within living memory. Mrs Lomas has worked with sommelier Ben Humberstone to create something special with these pairings, and their enthusiasm for England’s new wave of Champagne-rivalling sparkling wine is clear.
Ridgeview isn’t the only English vineyard to feature on Simpson’s discerning wine list, incidentally. Other highlights include Coates and Seely, with its Brut Reserve NV evoking apple orchards and sunshine; the refeshing, palest pink Balfour Brut Rose from the Hush Heath Winery in Kent; and the deliciously dry, elegant Gusbourne Blanc de Blancs 2012, whose sister 2013 vintage won best sparkling Blanc de Blancs in the recent WineGB Awards. And if you really can’t find one from that list that tickles your fancy, Ruinart or Krug is still on the menu.
Even if bubbly isn’t your thing – and let’s face it, if you’re going for the famous carvery you’ll probably want a nice Claret instead – Simpson’s is the sort of place that you really have to experience. It’s a true London original.
These hallowed halls, where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his creation Sherlock Holmes ate off the chess-patterned plates, have recently been impeccably, and respectfully, refurbished, retaining the old style, but breathing fresh life into the dark panelling and soft leather. The old place has never looked better.
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