Steven O’Brien

Arnold Ivey’s AVENUE

One of those first sharp days of Autumn. Post-summer London was freshened by the comparative lack of tourists, so it was an uncluttered joy to walk up the steps from the Mall, past the Duke of York Column and towards the solemn Crimea memorial to the Brigade of Guards. I suppose less than one in a hundred of the foreign tourists pause before the three bronze guardsmen, who stand forever ready in greatcoats and bearskins. In their full beards and haughty collective stare, the triumvirate demand recollection of those almost forgotten battles – Inkerman, the Alma and Sebastopol. Stern soldiers of the Great Queen Empress, they are the frozen likeness of those flesh and blood men who long ago formed the thin red line against sleet, shot and Russian shells.

We had a lunch planned at Avenue on St James street, so we turned away from Piccadilly. Avenue sits almost directly opposite the now decidedly spivvy Carlton Club. You would be forgiven for thinking it is an art gallery, with its contemporary international décor. The restaurant stretches back, past banquettes and a long running counter, to the inevitable raised gallery and intimate dining spaces.

Until recently Avenue was known primarily for American food. However, I was very glad to see that chef Arnold Ivey has brought things home, as it were, and now the menu is British sourced from head to toe. This is an excellent idea. With frenchified Boulestin a few doors down and Chutney Mary across the road, the last thing St James needs is American nosh. What London does need is more serious British restaurants.

For an aperitif they gave us some glasses of sparkling Nyetimber, grown on good Sussex chalk. Hilaire Belloc, our Son of the South Country, would have forgone champagne for good, after just one sip of this subtle fizz. There was hardly any acidity, and at my time of life, I want my sparkles mellow.

The waitress was helpfully Lithuanian. I have said it before, the multi-national staff of modern London restaurants bring breeze and much good nature to dining in the West End. For starters we went with the recommendation of our Baltic guide. We had Devon crab and Severn and Wye smoked salmon. The crab was as sweet as a fishwife’s fib. The salmon was very lightly smoked, with just a faint whisper of oak. There were shallots, tiny capers and home-made soda bread with the salmon. The crab stood alone, apart from a slice of toasted sourdough and a squeeze of lemon; quite rightly so.

We ordered a New Zealand sauvignon. For some reason we began to discuss Clark Gable; he of the jug ears, dentures and glossy dark hair, who so memorably walked out on that sapphire-eyed martinet Scarlet O’Hara without so much as giving a damn. My guest told me that she hankers after Gable, the crusty old matinee idol. I think she likes the idea of the heroic scoundrel. Gable, both the actor and the man would have given her a strong draught of that. Meanwhile the sauvignon did its job of slowing time as we sat in the window looking out on the hum of St James.

Our main courses were a whole Brixham plaice and a salmon fillet (again from the Severn) with green beans and new potatoes. Good British fish needs little adornment. The chef who approaches the cuisine of our islands should not hide behind too much spicing. Mace, cloves and nutmeg do very well thank you – indeed our fathers were very wise. Both dishes were spankingly fresh and deftly prepared. My plaice came topped with a constellation of buttery brown shrimps. They gave the seared fish the ozone zing of the half- remembered rock pool gleanings. The salmon fillet had been hot smoked, but again this more of a rumour in the flesh of the fish.

We touched upon the fact the crooner Al Bowlly was killed in the Blitz, just around the corner from where Avenue now sits. I told my companion that my grandfather used to play Bowlly’s records on a Sunday afternoon. And his whole milieu crystalized forever in my mind how nightclubs should be – a white jacketed crooner, round tables, glamorous women and candles. It follows then that my experience of nightclubs in the real world have been an enduring disappointment.

For dessert I had affogato with vanilla ice cream. My guest chose a raspberry and vanilla cheescake. Light conclusions, precisely done; we emerged into the afternoon sunshine ready for some casual sauntering.

Avenue is a civilised place.

                                                                                                  Steven O’Brien is a widely published poet and editor of The London Magazine. His most recent collections are Scrying Stone and Dark Hill Dreams. He has also recently published The Great Game: An Imperial Adventure with Endeavour Press. He lectures at the University of Portsmouth, where he leads the MA in Creative Writing. He is also Visiting Fellow of Creative Writing at University College Chichester. His doctoral thesis formed an interrogation of the poetic imagination from a Jungian perspective. He has published short fiction and travel writing.

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