11-15 Swallow St, Mayfair, London
These are strange, uncertain times. Which means that now, more than ever, we crave comfort, succour and good cheer, places that are as steadfastly reliable as the rising and setting of the sun. Places you can set your watch by. Places as far removed from the political hash and hodgepodge as could possibly be. Places like Bentley’s, that becalmed West End crustacean oasis, that blessed bivalve paradise.
I can’t begin to count the times that I’ve perched at the bar and scoffed oysters by the dozen, washed down with the coolest and crispest of white wines. Any troubles or worries melt away like butter in a searing pan. It’s the simplicity I crave, the absolute devotion to the very finest our seas have to offer. No fuss, nonsense or lawking about, just split ’em open and serve ’em up. Carlingfords, West Mersea, Colchester, Menai, Loch Ryan and Galway. It’s like an oyster hall of fame. And no one, not even Wilton’s, treats these beasts with such respect. For they’re not simply shucked, but cut from the shell, and flipped too, which means all the adoring punter need do is tip and slurp.
Bentley’s in Mayfair. I can’t begin to count the times that I’ve perched at the bar and scoffed oysters by the dozen, washed down with the coolest and crispest of white wines
A dribble of lemon, a drop of Tabasco, a dash of vinegar with shallot. I love the natives with all my heart, subtle, muscular and sweet. But times are hard for these flat-shelled beauties, and all is not well in their sandy beds. Production is limited, cultivation hard and disease rife. Not a catastrophe yet (and Bentley’s take their sustainability very seriously indeed), but stocks are running low. Which means they’re a rare treat, and an addiction to be tempered. Not so onerous a task, seeing the sheer quality and variety of the rocks.
Oysters here are bought at source, directly from the oystermen. And the menu changes according to what is at its best. But it’s not just oysters. There are fat Dorset clams, firm, muscular and fantastic. And crab, always fresh-boiled and picked that morning – Cromer crabs, with the very sweetest of flesh. Slathered with fresh mayonnaise and piled high on London’s finest soda bread, it’s testament to the simplicity of true brilliance. Take the best ingredients, lavish them with a love verging on devotion, and let them shine.
If your tastes err towards the cooked there’s always a fine fish pie, or delicate crab and mussel broth, or pert Dover sole, or a linguine vongole that could hold its head high in Naples.
Chef proprietor Richard Corrigan, the man behind it all, is a broad, barrel-chested, grinning force of nature. Not a man you’d get on the wrong side of, but one of Europe’s great chefs, no doubt about that. I first tasted his food at Lindsay House in Soho. And never forgot it. His technique was flawless, flavours always broad, but never brash. He’s certainly not shy of speaking his mind, or picking a fight with the big beasts of commercial agriculture. But he eternally fights for the small producer, the artisans, the farmers who work for passion rather than profit. Flavour always comes first.
Cromer crabs, with the very sweetest of flesh. Slathered with fresh mayonnaise and piled high on London’s finest soda bread, it’s testament to the simplicity of true brilliance
And he has a generosity of spirit that flows like a raging torrent through everything he does. In fact, I had to make sure he wasn’t about when I visited for this review. As you have to fight to actually pay. Bentley’s may have a long history, but it’s Corrigan who made it great.
There are so few restaurants you can rely upon, time after time. St John is one, The Guinea Grill another. Bentley’s too, of course. It’s the sort of place you can take anyone, from mother and father to friends, tourists and children. Better still, go on your own. Take a book, and a seat at the bar, and escape.
Whatever the ailment, Bentley’s makes it better.
About £40 per head